Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

First Principles and the Election

William Edgar


September 7, 2012

By William Edgar 

The Center for Public Justice may frustrate some who become acquainted with it because they are looking not so much for deep principles but for specific guidance on voting. Of course it is important to find out a particular office-holder’s platform. What is missing from this kind of approach, however, is the connection between basic principles and those particular decisions. In the interest of brevity, I will name three basic beliefs held by the Center and suggest what they might imply for the upcoming elections.

(1) The order of creation. Following John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and John Murray, I believe that God created the world and placed mankind in it as his vice-regent, to rule and oversee the world as good stewards. There is a particular order in this creation that unfolds in history and differentiates as the world develops. As Kuyper elaborated in his principle of sphere sovereignty, there are institutional realms that cohere within the overall rule of God, but each has its own proper character and norms. This means, for example, that the state is a sphere which exercises legitimate authority over a population in order to strive for justice and human flourishing. The church is a different sphere, which properly preaches God’s Word, shepherds the flock, administers the sacraments and engages in diaconal ministry. The family is another sphere, which is governed neither by the civil magistrate nor by the church as a church. This order does not change fundamentally with the fall. Christ restores these spheres in His risen state, where he reigns over every throne, dominion, ruler or authority (Colossians 1:16).

Through using the wisdom of Scripture, this principle can be applied according to the needs of a particular society. For example, one of the issues being tossed around by the major political parties is whether government is controlling too much of our lives. But size, as such, is not the main question. Rather, the questions should be: Does the state encroach in the affairs of the church inappropriately? Do I create a business by personal initiative or within the whole complex of social structure, including government? How Christian is American individualism? Does a strong role for the government necessarily imply socialism? 

(2) The protection of religious freedom. Although we are in a deeply fallen world, we are presently in the times of God’s patience. No longer in the Mosaic administration where blasphemy and false worship were a civil offense, we now recognize that the wheat and the weeds grow up together, and the time for their separation has not yet come (Matthew 13:24-30). The appropriate social order for this era is one of religious freedom. 

This has obvious implications for countries where religion is restricted or persecuted by government forces. American foreign policy should support religious liberty and enforce such support in ways that are reasonable and non-coercive. At home, the issue of religious freedom has particular poignancy, since one of the candidates for the highest office is a practicing Mormon. While some of us believe this religion is outside the limits of Christianity, does that mean the candidate is not qualified to serve? Undoubtedly not. A candidate’s fitness for office must be determined on other grounds, such as character, the ability to make tough decisions under pressure, and the like. 

(3) Finally, a belief in the Christian-Democratic approach to public well-being, sometimes known as principled pluralism. It stands in contrast with Christian imperialism, which is an attempt to rule a realm by the standards of the church, as was largely the case in the West since Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion. Principled pluralism also stands in contrast to any kind of Christian nationalism, the view that God has chosen a particular nation to be the place where the Christian faith should predominate. But the Christian-Democratic approach does not accept the privatization of religion or a secular understanding of the public square. 

Using the term Christian-Democratic does not mean that the majority is always right. Let’s take the delicate issue of gay rights. The Center believes that government’s role is neither to forbid all homosexual practice nor to enforce it in every home or institution. Government’s role is to protect the rights, health and public equity of all its citizens. But it is for non-governmental entities to decide the morality or immorality of homosexual relations. This does not mean relativism. We may still believe, for example, that it is not legitimate to use the category of marriage for gay relationships. One problem in the present American debates is that magistrates are battling either for government sanctions for gay rights or against them. To put it in our terms, this is an undifferentiated, “winner-takes-all” approach, rather than assigning proper authority to each sphere. 

There is obviously much more to say. What is America’s role in the world? How do we operate in a world where most people do not accept these principles? For these and many other issues, I would refer you to the Center’s Guidelines on Government and Citizenship. The upcoming election is one in which our principles are quite relevant, as I think everyone would agree! 

—William Edgar is a Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”