This article appears in Der Lutheraner Vol. 17, No. 20., May 14, 1861.
(Submitted by Th. Brohm.)
The Christian and Politics.
It seems to me a matter of utmost importance that we make it quite clear to ourselves how we should prove ourselves as Christians and God’s servants in this time of political confusion and agitation of minds, partly so that we ourselves do not sin grievously, and partly so that we do not give cause for the Lutheran congregations to be disrupted and torn apart by discord.
I therefore submit for your consideration and examination the chief principles which, in my opinion, must guide Christians at this time.
(1) Now, as at all times, above all the distinction between spiritual and temporal government, between the things that are of a spiritual nature and belong to the kingdom of heaven and those that are of a temporal nature and belong to civil affairs, must be strictly maintained, and it must be guarded that one is not mixed with the other.
Accordingly, all political questions, insofar as they are of a purely political nature, are to be strictly excluded from the pulpit and congregational meetings.
(2) However much difference of opinion in political matters may be deplorable, and is a striking proof of the great darkening of human reason, which cannot find the truth with undoubted certainty even in the things subject to it, and however perniciously this difference may affect the general welfare of a state, we must neither expect nor demand a complete unanimity of Christians in this matter, simply because it is not promised to us.
To demand unity in matters concerning eternal life is not an excessive demand, partly because God has given us the source and rule of truth, his Word, and partly because He has promised us the Spirit of Truth, who is to guide us into all truth; but in matters which God has subjected to the judgment of human reason, without revealing His will to us in the Holy Scriptures, to demand complete unity would be presumptuous and would lead to intolerable tyranny.
3. Differences of political opinion, if they do not otherwise arise from false doctrine or are connected with it, e.g. false doctrine of Government, slavery, blending of civil and Christian liberty, may exist without damage to unity of spirit and faith, just as well as differences of opinion on matters of art, civil commerce, the best way to farm, etc.
(4) But in order that, as a result of these differences, the unity of spirit and faith may not be disturbed, brotherly love must be the queen of our mutual conduct toward one another.
Love, however, does not judge the other for dissenting opinions, does not despise him, does not undertake to impose its personal convictions on others with impropriety, still less does it want to exercise dominion over him or have everything ordered only according to its head. Love suspects nothing evil, suspects no one of being unchristian on account of deviating political views; it gladly believes the best of him, even if it believes him to be caught in a great and harmful political error.
One of God’s holy purposes for letting us experience this present time is undoubtedly also so that in this school we learn to practice brotherly love to a greater extent and with more self-denial than was possible in quiet times. Blessed is he who recognizes this time as such a school and that self-denying love as his present task in life.
It must not be forbidden among Christians to express their political views in social circles, to defend them with all reasons, to contradict the opponent and to try to refute him; but all this must be done among Christians with modesty, with gentleness, without passionate excitement, with careful consideration, not with weapons of mockery and scorn, which does not produce conviction, but only bitterness. It is precisely by such conduct, guided by Christian love, that Christians must distinguish themselves from children of the world.
(6) Just as it behooves a Christian to think of himself moderately, so modesty and humility in the assertion of his political opinions befit especially those who cannot boast of being experts and masters in statecraft. When famous men who have grown gray in government service, and whose ability and honesty cannot be denied, hold different views on important political questions, it is indeed intolerably presumptuous to boast, speak, and act as if one were an expert, while one has neither gifts, nor knowledge, nor profession, nor sources of help for acquiring a well-founded, matured opinion, and has drawn one’s political views only from the dishonest source of a political party paper.
This modesty and this legitimate distrust of one’s own wisdom is especially urged upon young people, but then also to all those who are more or less not political experts.
Luther, when approached for an opinion on the opposition of the Protestant princes to the Emperor, simply limited himself to a theological answer; but as far as the difficult questions about the constitutional relationship of the Emperor to the German princes were concerned, he did not consider himself competent to pronounce a definite judgment, but referred them to the experts, the jurists. Accordingly, a Christian, however bright a mind he may have or think he has, should not be ashamed to confess his greater or lesser incompetence in judging difficult political questions.
As long as a Christian is to some extent unclear, uncertain, and doubtful about an important political question, it behooves him to remain neutral. It is irresponsible recklessness and presumption to promote by one’s vote certain measures on which the weal or woe of a whole nation, the life or death of countless people, depends, while there is still some uncertainty of conviction or possibility of error.
8. If the conscience needs counseling from God’s Word, turn privately to one’s pastor or to an experienced Christian; if one needs information and guidance about political questions, about the correct interpretation of a law, etc., seek advice from experts.
(9) It is not sufficient to warn everyone against political gossip or chatter as a pastime, and such loose talk which wastes precious time and alienates the soul from godliness. When one speaks about politics, let it be done with godliness and seriousness, with the conscientious intention of either learning or instructing.
(10) In all the interest which a Christian, as a citizen, takes and is obliged to take in the political questions and events of the time, let him not forget, for God’s sake, that his walk is in heaven and that he is called to be a stranger and pilgrim on earth. He should watch and pray that his heart does not fall into an earthly mind in the turmoil and confusion of the world, expressing itself in unbelieving fear or as political zealotry, in which trust in the living God, the love of his Savior, the daily penitent recognition of his own guilt of sin, the striving for that which is above, no longer finds room in his heart.