The cover headline caught my eye, and I surprised both the elderly leafletter and myself when I took a copy of the “Watchtower” magazine on my way out of the subway station this morning. Religion and politics is one of my favorite subjects. What do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have to say?
What little I know about this much-abused Christian sect comes from my study of First Amendment law in the United States. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been at the center of battles over the constitutionality of door-to-door proselytizing, offensive speech toward public officials and mandatory flag salute laws. They have also been involved in controversies related to their religious opposition to blood transfusions, particularly when children are involved.
While the sect’s rights have been vindicated in some important Supreme Court decisions, particularly West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) — which gave Witness children the right to refuse to salute the American flag in public schools — in general it has faced intolerance both in the U.S. and abroad. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Jehovah’s Witnesses harbor some skepticism about earthly governments. But I was taken aback by the following unqualified declaration, which appears on page six:
“True Christians today do not participate in politics.”
The Watchtower’s reasoning for this blunt view isn’t the sharpest, but it is worth considering:
1. Human ability is limited. The Bible states that humans have neither the ability nor the right to govern themselves. “It does not belong to man who is walking,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah, “even to direct his step.” — Jeremiah 10:23 …
2. Wicked spirit forces currently have an influence. … Behind the scenes, wicked spirit forces are the real rulers of this world….
3. True Christians give allegiance only to God’s Kingdom. Jesus and his disciples knew that at a set time, God himself would establish a government in heaven to rule over the entire earth. The Bible calls this government God’s Kingdom and reveals that Jesus Christ has been appointed as its King.
On first blush this may sound something like the position of St. Augustine, who distinguished the City of God from the City of Man and urged Catholics to become citizens of the former rather than the lustful materialist denizens of the latter. But whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged to completely “refrain from supporting…all man-made political systems,” Augustine had a more nuanced view in mind.
You may have just spit up your afternoon tea over my comparison of the City of God — a 5th century masterpiece of political theology — with the flimsy May 1, 2012 “Watchtower.” But this is a good opportunity to look a bit further into Augustine’s argument and appreciate how it differs from the Witnesses’ untenably radical rejection of politics. The City of Man, for Augustine, is not bounded by any particular political society, and the City of God exists both in heaven and on earth. Specific states, as he clarifies in Book 19, Chapter 17, can be effective mediates between the earthly and the heavenly:
This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. …Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven; for this alone can be truly called and esteemed the peace of the reasonable creatures, consisting as it does in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God.
Come November, neither the medieval Catholic nor the modern Jehovah’s Witness view of church and state will be on voters’ minds. The Mormon view may well be. Mitt Romney spoke about his Mormon faith and its relationship to politics back in 2007, but we have heard almost nothing about the topic during this election cycle, and in that speech he largely evaded the issue. I’m very curious to see when and how the topic reappears in the political spotlight.
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
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