Pages from a Popular History of Grand Rapids

Faith & Society in New River Free Press, March 1976

How a Grand Rapids

City Commissioner Handled

His Commitment to Christ and

His Political Role

  • [Early in 1976, I invited M. Howard Rienstra, Third Ward Commissioner, Grand Rapids, MI, who taught history at Calvin College, to write an article on his faith and his political role for the New River Free Press, a community newspaper that I edited and published in Grand Rapids. I made this request after  he drove me around Grand Rapids' inner city and I interviewed him on his perspective on urban challenges and how to deal with them. I was delighted to run the following article from this respected historian, teacher, and civic leader. I discovered recently that Prof. Rienstra had passed away some years ago. In his memory, I reprint his still relevant New River Free Press article that was published in March 1976. --Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor]

By M. Howard Rienstra

There are two apparently contradictory principles that guide my thinking on the proper relationship between my faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, and my political activity. They are:

  1. That politics is an area of human activity of tremendous importance but in which there are no final or ultimate solutions; and
  2. That the Christian's role in politics is to transform it by working to eliminate prejudice, privilege, and greed, and to establish social justice.
These two principles express the continuing ambiguity of the Christian's involvement with politics. To oversimplify them would be to say that the Christian doesn't think much can be done, but that he is obliged to try in the name of Christ. The Christian must work to establish conditions on earth which are at least a partial fulfillment of Christ's redemptive work with the whole Creation, and which thus partially anticipate the Kingdom of God yet to come.

These principles have been expressed in many different ways throughout the centuries of Christianity. My favorite formulation is that of St. Augustine as expressed in his The City of God. The book was written in the 5th century shortly after the fall of Rome to the Visigoths.

St. Augustine argues that are two loves which respectively guide the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly. The earthly or temporal city is animated by man's love of himself. The heavenly or eternal city is animated by the love of God. He ridiculed his fellow Roman citizens for having thought that Rome, an earthly city full of hate, greed, and power-hungry privilege, could have been 'eternal.' But at the same time St. Augustine wept over the fall of the city in which he had his temporal citizenship.

Similarly, 20th century Christians recognize politics on all levels to be tainted by pride, selfishness, greed, and privilege. Self love is the animating force and even the Christian is seriously tempted and sometimes compromised by his or her involvement. Because of this, and because even under the best systems and circumstances the solutions are of "the-lesser-of-two-evils" variety, some would argue that the Christian should withdraw from politics and serve only the church. Perhaps Christians should stay outside until reform, revolution, or the millennium should come.

My position, however, is that the redeeming love Christ demonstrated for the temporal condition of his creation by His Incarnation obligates the Christian likewise to become a functioning part of all temporal circumstances and affairs, including politics. It may be frustrating and even dangerous, but there is no other way to express the fullness of our individual and corporate responsibility as witnesses to Christ's love for His creation.

The task of the Christian is complicated, however, by two kinds of confusion that seem almost unique to American politics. The one confusion arises out of the use of theological language as part of the rhetoric of politics, and the other is the phenomenon of 'civil religion.' Both are dangerous, but I personally resent the former more than the latter. The use of the concept of 'hope' is a prime example of the first kind of confusion. In Christian theology there had been a recent resurgence of the idea of 'Hope.'

In this theology, Christ is the only and real hope of the world. But the idea has been politicized. In the politics of  hope it is argued that if men of good-will, right reason, and moral commitment get together they can create a new politics of universal well-being and secular happiness. The theology of Hope clearly means something quite distinct from the politics of hope, but the rhetoric of politics blurs the distinction intentionally.

There are other examples of this confusion, of course, but the recent rhetoric of 'reconciliation' and 'redemption' is equally misleading. There is now a politics of 'salvation' which, as one author puts it, constitutes a secular search for new Christs. To me this is a tragic, if not blasphemous, confusion of the ends of theology with the means of politics.

Civil religion is also confusing and complicates the involvement of the Christian in politics. Civil religion demands not only loyalty to the country, but also a religious commitment to such things as American tradition, the American way of life, and the American constitution. Whereas traditional religion consists of our private and personal beliefs, civil religion is public and common to all Americans. Civil religion tries to synthesize all traditional religions into a higher loyalty. One's personal faith is supposed to take second place to the public faith.

Some years ago in a debate in the City  Commission, I remarked that the American constitution was a fine secular political document, but that it could not demand my assent since it was not God. Such a statement is heresy to the worshippers of the cult of American civil religion and I was properly denounced in an editorial for that heresy.

I continue to insist, however, that only God and His Word have the authority and power to command the assent of the Christian. When religious-like claims are made for a secular political structure or system, the Christian must protest. As with St. Augustine in the Roman world, the Christian must reject  the pretense of the secular political order to assume religious significance and thereby to common religious loyalty and obedience.

The pledge of allegiance to the flag with which we open session of the City Commission is a case in point. Most regard this as an ordinary symbolic expression of civil loyalty, and as such it is similar to the loyalty St. Augustine professed to Rome and which led him to weep over her fall. But if the pledge of allegiance should be interpreted as a statement of ultimate and highest loyalty, then the Christian would have to remain silent. Only God is the proper object of such loyalty for the Christian.

Some would argue that the only distinguishing characteristic of the Christian in politics is his or her motivation. In one sense this is true. The Christian alone is motivated by the love of God as expressed in Christ. But does this make a difference? Do motives ever make a difference? Rarely, for the product of political action is unstable, frequently perverse or paradoxical, and usually produces more problems than it solves regardless of motivation.

It makes little difference, for example, whether the motives of those who devised the federal home mortgage program after the Second World War were good or bad, religious or not. The effect of that program was to enrich some at the expense of others and to destroy central cities. Are not common sense and judgment more important than motives?

I would like to think that as a Christian my motives in politics are proper. But aren't the motives of the Jew, the Humanist, the Atheist equally proper to the ends of politics? Yes, they are. Actually, the difference between Jews, Christians, Humanists, and Atheists does not lie in their motives, but rather in their religiously and philosophically rooted principles of truth. They may disagree dramatically on matters of ultimate truth, but yet agree that the proximate and immediate goals of social justice can be achieved through more jobs, more adequate housing, and equal treatment in the criminal justice system. There may be religiously based conflicts on such matters as abortion, capital punishment, and the handling of so-called victimless crimes, but such matters constitute less than 10% of the agenda and responsibility of local government.

There seem to be two particular consequences of what I have been saying thus far. First, as a Christian I must be careful to distinguish between what I do as a witness to Christ and what I do as Howard Rienstra, politician. They can never be separated, of course, but my imperfect, self-serving conduct of office can never be adequate to express the totally transforming power of Christ's love. But neither can the recognition of my inadequacy to represent the love of God be taken as an excuse. I may, for example, be either liberal or conservative by personal political disposition, but I must as a Christian witness transcend such purely secular political commitments. Not that I always will; but I must always try to be faithful and obedient to the love of God. I must always ask whether I am expressing the love of self or the love of God in my conduct of politics.

A second consequence is equally important. Politics requires the Christian to join with persons of diverse faiths and commitments in order to effect a political order in which social justice may be at least partially attained. Some may see this  as compromise, but I see it as the kind of cooperation in the realm of the secular which Christ charges us to practice. God uses the whole of creation and all persons in it to attain His purposes. We are all instruments of God's good and just will.

This means that I not only recognize God working in and through my life and political conduct, but also in the lives and political activity of all persons, both Christian and non-Christian. Mayor Drasin is as fully personally committed to a just social and political order as I am, although on the basis of a different religious commitment. We can and must cooperate in the arena of politics to effect God's good and just will without compromising our religious commitment and principles. Both the presence and the witness of the Christian in politics testifies that God may be served in this way.

A lot of work.

From: Faith & Society in New River Free Press, March 1976

A New River Free Press Reprint/Sept. '76

New River Free Press:

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From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

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--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
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Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 05:19PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment