Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.

The debate over how important it is for candidates to be Christian has renewed this week upon Rick Santorum’s campaign suspension. Also, AnGeL Ministries’ director Anne Graham Lotz (the middle name gives her ministerial lineage away) was criticized for claiming on an MSNBC roundtable that she would “not vote for a man who was atheist.” As she mentioned earlier in the debate, she wants American presidents to have a “fear,” “respect,” and “reverence for God.”

The Blaze’s Billy Hallowell echoed Lotz’s concerns: “This distrust of atheists is widespread in society, as the vast majority of Americans claim that a belief in God is something they value in presidential candidates.” The debate host David Gregory referenced a poll indicating 86 percent of Americans think it’s important that presidential candidates believe in God. Interestingly, The Blaze’s own poll revealed (once I cast my vote) that the vast majority—88.35 percent—said they would vote for an atheist candidate.

There is, then, an obvious need to account for this wide disparity in polls, opinions, and polarized claims about the important of religion and faith to the American presidency.

It would be a dubious leap of faith—not to mention a revisionist reading of American history—for someone to claim all American presidents were or are Christians. Christopher Hitchens and others have explored Jefferson’s deism thoroughly. Abraham Lincoln is another president of questionable faith, whose beliefs sometimes seem primarily devoted to natural law.

Through their outspokenness and their vote, figureheads like Lotz are trying to prevent other potential imposters or professed disbelievers from entering the presidential “cloud of witnesses.” The interesting thing with the two presidents mentioned above is that both are key figures in American presidential history. If two men of tremulous faith in God were able to draft major and foundational documents of American history, we must admit that doubting and non-believing leaders can be used for profound good in the presidency.

To try, as Lotz and many evangelicals do, to support presidential candidates primarily based on their spiritual beliefs is a dangerous endeavor. As Gregory A. Boyd points out in his bestselling The Myth of a Christian Nation (2005), they risk attempting “moral guardianship”—a task in which Pharisees found illicit pleasure. The focus for believers, according to Boyd, should not be on how they vote but instead on how they conduct their lives.

I wonder if many fundamentalists are terrified of non-believing presidents largely because the election of such a figure would indicate that America is indeed post-Christian. Newsweek writers have explained that America’s being post-Christian does not mean that it accepts Nietzsche’s maxim that “God is dead” but rather that Christianity “is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.” Because such a president goes beyond their recent memory, they seem to think imminent, apocalyptic destruction is nigh.

All too often, religiously devout political leaders frequently get embroiled in compromising situations and make poor choices. God himself was resistant to the Israelites’ call for a king to rule them, and the Old Testament chronicles a series of political disasters beginning with Saul’s kingship. In more recent times, Former President George H. W. Bush, a professing believer, cannot shake off calls for him be tried for war crimes.

We should entertain the notion that non-religious leaders may very well be better situated for roles like kingship and the presidency. Paul assured believers all governing authorities are established by God, and believers should therefore submit themselves to the authorities’ rule (Romans 13.1-2). These words were addressed to believers living under one of the most powerful—and oftentimes brutal—political forces the world has ever seen. But not all unbelieving leaders are set on wielding similar oppressive power against their citizens. Perhaps the election of another unbelieving president would be the chance for renewal rather than the guaranteed restriction of religious rights.


  1. Well, I most certainly am aware that GOD IS SOVEREIGN IN HIS PROVIDENCE, does this mean casting a vote is futile? Well, He knows who’s gonna vote and for who, and who’s not gonna vote, who’s gonna run and who’s gonna drop out… so overall, I. As a man who has witnessed, experienced visually and physically the powers of our God, would say that it is best for the christian to play their role in the matter… why??? I’ll give an example: just as giving ones testemony and professing their faith, Gods love and healing power to group of “wannabe gods” or atheists, may get them stoned or violently mocked, there is a very good chance that atleast 1 or 2 out of the group will have the Holy Spirit of God move through them, convict them and lead them to communion with their maker/Creator/Sovereign God… salvation… Amen. And voting for an atheist president of the U.S. is simply a no no… ;-)

  2. So far as I know, we’ve never had an atheist President.

    Proverbs 29:2 says When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.
    Certainly people want a leader who will not be corrupt in his dealings and who will promote liberty and justice.
    An easy way to account for the disparity between the number of people who believe it is important for their leader to believe in God, and the number of people who say they would vote for an atheist is to acknowledge that “important” doesn’t translate into “THE most important thing.”
    If I had a choice to vote between two candidates, one of which professed beliefs similar to mine, but with an agenda that doesn’t mirror what I see as a natural extension of my beliefs and another candidate who doesn’t profess to believe the way I do, but would preserve my liberties to live according to my conscience, I would probably choose the latter.

  3. First, this is a well-written and well-argued post. Ryan is correct to point out “that non-religious leaders may very well be better situated for roles like kingship and the presidency.” For those who would disagree, I would challenge them to prove how past Christian-affiliated leaders somehow have a more Christ-like record than past non-Christian leaders. Bush is just the most recent example of the inconsistency the word Christian brings to the political arena as a descriptor.

    To pull a concept from Boyd’s book (with heavy paraphrasing since I do not have the book in front of me): The kingdom of God and the Kingdom of man are not compatible because the Kingdom of God lifts people out of oppression while the Kingdom of man is inherently oppressive in order to maintain control. For me, this means to be successful within the political arena, a Christian must break from the teachings of Christ almost immediately. While Ryan uses the more gracious phrase “compromising situations” to describe such a break, I have given up on mincing words about the compatibility of following Christ’s teachings and secular power.

    I won’t go into my dim view of Paul and his corrosive effects on early Christianity, but instead of using Romans as guide for how Christians should view political power, I would probably point to Luke 4:5-7 to describe how Christians should view and interact with political power and processes. Including voting.

    I would recommend reading all of Jacques Ellul’s writings on this subject, but in particular: The Subversion of Christianity and The Politics of God & The Politics of Man

  4. I’ll have to return to his later, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that “secular power” can’t be harnessed for the common good, which, essentially, would be a Christological use of power.

    Take, for instance, Michael Lindsay’s arguments: http://www.qideas.org/blog/social-mobility-and-power.aspx

    I don’t think it’s the use of power that’s the problem; rather, it’s how we use it. That said, I would agree that involvement in the political sphere is the most muddied, because, as Lindsay mentions, it presupposes a level of compromise. In the political sphere, compromise is a necessity. And this is increasingly problematic for all “sides” involved, if we don’t begin to speak in motivational terms that are explicitly concerned with the “common good.”

  5. Nick,

    The realization that secular power cannot be harnessed by Christians can be unsettling because on the surface it seems to show weakness, so I can understand why you would be uncomfortable with the idea. Many Christians are used to muscling earthly systems of power to bend to their will, so to go against that mindset and instead rely on faith and the Holy Spirit as Jesus intended is an extremely foreign and disconcerting concept.

    What Michael Lindsay speaks of in the link you provided is exactly what Boyd defines as the myth of a Christian nation. Christ was focused on lifting people out of oppressive systems, and since all earthly power is based on some level of oppression, the concept of using earthly power to create a nation that is oppression-free never works, hence the myth.

    Lindsay is attempting what many before him have failed to do, convert secular culture. Lindsay will also fail because secular culture cannot be forcefully converted. This is why Christ offered people the chance to follow him, but warned about the cost of doing so. Jesus did not attempt conversion; he offered a different way and moved on. If people were so compelled to follow they did. Christ was able to subvert the secular culture by offering another way, not through forced conversion.

    Your idea of a Christological use of secular power baffles me. If a person truly studies Christ’s teachings and his way of living, they would realize such a phrase is diametrically opposed.

    Because the political sphere requires compromise, it is a place where a Christian can only be effective by giving up on some part of Jesus’ teachings, which is why I refer to Luke 4:5-7 and Jesus eschewing secular power.

    Finally, there is no such thing as the “common good” because a Christian’s definition of the common good is going to be drastically different than that of an atheist’s view, so already there is a conflict which will require compromise (see paragraph 5).

  6. The role of government is to restrain evil. To assert that government is intrinsically oppressive is stretching the meaning of oppressive.
    The example of Daniel in the Old Testament shows how someone can excel in government without compromise.

  7. Bonnie,

    Excelling at government does not mean a person is without compromise. By participating in the Babylonian government, however ancillary his role, Daniel was supporting the violence the Babylonian government used to maintain control of its empire.

  8. Michael, you seem to be focused on Christians bound to experience the incompatibility of Christianity and a secular occupation such as the presidency, whereas Nick seems to be raising the point that non-religious, secular leaders can still be “harnessed for the common good.” Correct me if I’m wrong, gentlemen. I think it’s important to distinguish between the faith (or lack thereof) of the group each of you is referring to.

    Bonnie, fwiw: there’s “hard,” or literally-experienced, oppression–and there’s “soft” oppression, where citizens are oftentimes constrained without even knowing it or, if they sense it, having the terminology or words needed to describe their constraint. Michael seems to be referring to soft oppression. (Again, correct me if I’m wrong, Michael.) It’s true that government’s role is to restrain evil, but they sometimes end up committing evil in the very act of trying to prevent it.

  9. Mkross,

    What I was trying to allude to is this: power is not inherently evil (nor is it inherently “secular”). There is something that we refer to as secular society as a useful category, but, ultimately, that category does not describe the resources that those people are using. Power is God’s, and, therefore, it is not inherently “secular.”

    You seem to take what I said about harnessing power and assume that I mean religious people grabbing the reigns and using power manipulatively (and, thus, in a worldly systemic way). It’s a false assumption that one has to necessarily use power in this way. I think it mistaken to say that a person can’t be guided by the power of the Spirit of Christ and cultivate the renewal of all things–including systemic power.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that Lindsay is trying to “convert secular culture.” You’ll have to unpack what you mean by that, because, frankly, I’m not sure.

    I like Boyd to some degree, and I think he’s mostly right about the Religious Right and more right about the myth of a christian nation, but you seem to be assuming that the categories of power that Boyd describes in reference to the Religious Right are fixed. In other words, you seem to assume that harnessing power is necessarily doing so in a harmful, manipulative fashion. It just isn’t the case. Lindsay (and Crouch, and Qideas, really) is dealing with fundamentally different categories than you are. It’s seeking the renewal of culture by seeking the common good of everyone–and (this is the important part) in such a way that we also do not adopt the systemic approach that is “worldly.”

    So you’ll have to wrestle with what I said without assuming that I care much at all for anything resembling “forced conversion,” because I certainly do not! It’s a simple question that I have: can power be harnessed in a non-corrupting way. My answer is unequivocally yes.

    Lastly, it’s misleading to assume that the common good can’t be sought just because not everyone will agree upon what that entails or Who ultimately declares what is Good. Again, you’re thinking that what I mean by that is to say that I want to force everyone to fall in line with something, rather than simply seeking the good of others (in all the ways that we can–not merely and not even primarily in the political sphere).

    That said, you’re right to say that not everyone would agree on what the common good entails, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to better articulate why what we believe is the common good is actually a principle which leads to generative living/culture for people generally. We (Christians) must be better at this. We must be better at articulating why a Biblical ethic is for humanity’s good. This doesn’t mean it won’t be met with push back, but push back doesn’t disqualify our seeking the common good in such a way that we don’t force things on people.

    Lastly, to speak to Ryan’s comment, I also agree that people of other faiths or even no faith (or, at least no acknowledged one–belief in unbelief is not sustainable, if you ask me) can “do good” or “seek the common good” even in their ignorance of its Source. It’s certainly possible (it happens quite often) that a non-Christian can be living in such a way that lines up with a Christian ethic better than the Christian. God’s way is His way, and people are either living it or not–sometimes regardless of beliefs that are merely professed.

    I hope some of this is clear. I’m in a bit of a time crunch.

    Good conversation here, though.

  10. To reiterate: “common good” does not mean “what everyone agrees is good,” rather it has to do with seeking the betterment of everyone, not just ourselves and not just Christians.

  11. One more thing that struck me when rereading the comments:

    What I described above as “the renewal of all things” could also be described as our being agents of the kingdom of God on earth right now. New Creatures being pro-creative in the broadest sense of the term.

    And I would add that, almost certainly, the political sphere is the most difficult place to think through how this might be accomplished, but I would assert that we need to first start thinking on more localized levels, without totally ignoring the national scene.

  12. There’s a difference between “non-religious” and “atheist” leaders. As for whether or not it’s wise to vote for atheists, I guess that depends on how one views natural law and, more importantly, where the atheist stands on key issues.

    Certainly Deists had no problem running and founding our country, nor did agnostics. The only problem is that modern atheists are nothing like their older counterparts (such as Hume). As a whole, the “new” atheists (Dawkins, the late Hitchens, et al) tend to be more anti-intellectual, brash, and don’t really bring anything to the table. They’re no different than evangelical Christians really…and just as I don’t want Rick Santorum for president, I wouldn’t want a “new atheist” for a president either.

    But there are other atheists out there that I think would make fine political leaders, such as William Rowe or even Paul Draper.

  13. Ryan, when you ask if I am focused on the incompatibility of Christianity and secular occupations, I will say no and then clarify that, even though you use the presidency as an example of a secular occupation, I was only focusing on the incompatibility of following Christ and participating in secular governments for this discussion.

    Nick, you semm to ascribe to what I call a Pauline idea of earthly or human-based power being God’s. I do not agree with that idea, so with that being said, we will probably just talk circles around this post because of that difference alone. In my first comment on this post I challenged people who disagreed with me to “prove how past Christian-affiliated leaders somehow have a more Christ-like record than past non-Christian leaders.” I appreciate your rebuttal, but you could have avoided it by instead meeting my challenge with just one example of a Christian-affiliated leader who did has not used power in a manipulative or forceful way.

  14. Michael,

    My point was not specifically concerned with being a rebuttal to the idea that non-Christian leaders can be as or more effective than Christian leaders given the same position of cultural influence.

    Rather, I want to challenge the idea that Christians cannot have a position of influence in this world, while still remaining faithful to Christ in use of that influence. What I’m saying is that when Paul describes the “human-based power” that you’re referencing, he’s not referring to power generally. He’s referring to a certain misuse of power. Positions of influence are not necessarily (that is, merely by nature of their being influential) the wielding of “worldly power,” whereby to hold the position one must absolutely use the influence wrongly, unhelpfully, or manipulatively.

    If you’d like to argue that it is very difficult not to compromise given a current set of circumstances surrounding a particular cultural position in a certain sector of society, I have no problem with that. The difficulty does vary.

    But, yes, if you’d prefer that I not interact with you on this, and instead prefer that I interact with your “challenge,” then I’ve not much else to say, because I’ve already made my position clear.

  15. Nick,

    As I clarified to Ryan above, I was working within the topic of his post, namely that non-believers may be better suited to take on positions of political power because they will not have to compromise the teachings of Christ to be an effective leader. Instead of directly responding to my initial comment, you swiped at parts of it and then moved the conversation into generalities of Christian in a broad spectrum of positions of power and called it influence.

    While your own “challenge” is worthy of discussion, “the idea that Christians cannot have a position of influence in this world, while still remaining faithful to Christ” is far too general a topic for this forum. It would not be fair to Ryan to move the conversation out of the political arena his post is attempting to work within.

    I had no intention of arguing outside the scope of the political arena when I initially commented on Ryan’s post, which is why I later said that we would probably be talking circles around this post. The circling I was referring to would be you trying to go outside the political arena to make your case while I would be trying to bring the conversation back into the topic of the post. I meant no offense in my attempts to steer the conversation back into the political arena.

    I agree with you that there are positions of power/influence outside of the political sector where Christians can work without compromise, but within the political arena, specifically on the national level, I disagree. That being said, I am more than willing to discuss this idea with you, my only preference is that we interact within the scope of Ryan’s post.

  16. Michael,

    Fair enough, but I don’t really think it’s outside the scope of Ryan’s post. I think your first comment was well within the scope of the post, and so I responded to it. And my comments include the political sphere. I don’t think a “secular” position of influence–political included–is by nature a necessary manipulation of power by one’s simply inhabiting the position. You seemed to infer this in your first comment, and I disagree with it, because I think you’re ascribing too much dominion to the term “secular.”

    But I appreciate the brief interaction. Maybe you can write a blog post at some point clarifying (or, more fully outlining) your position. I’d be interested, and I’m not sure that we ultimately disagree all that much.

  17. Mike, I appreciate your concern for staying within the boundaries of this post, but, like Nick, I don’t think the points proposed for discussion extend beyond the scope of this post. I wrote this primarily to trigger thought and discussion about religion and politics. It seems to be doing that, so I’m content.

    Go to, gentlemen, if you’re up to it.

  18. Ryan, I appreciate the go-ahead to expand the conversation, but I was hoping to stay within political boundaries since that is more my area of interest. I (mostly) got writing about Christianity out of my system with a now-defunct blog, so considering that both you and Nick are up for a more general discussion about a topic that I’m not really interested in spending more time on, I’ll bow out now with this comment and give you two the final word.

    Nick, I appreciate the offer to write a post, but I’m afraid the blog may burst into flame from having a heretic like myself write a guest spot. Well, that and as Ryan can attest, I’m lucky to post on Le Coup D’oeil in a timely manner, let alone another site.

    If you’ve not read either of the Ellul books I recommend above, then I would implore you to read them to better understand my reasons for why Christians should not seek positions of political power. Well, Ellul’s books and the fact that Christ eschewed such human forms of power as well.

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