Battered and Bruised
I am a grizzled veteran of “the culture wars.” In the old days, it was (supposedly) easy to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Participants in the political process could be plotted along a simple spectrum, with conservatives and liberals at opposite ends and moderates in the middle. Conversations between the competing factions could be tense, but at least they could be had. Everyone knew where everyone else stood, and there were some underlying values that people had in common.
Perhaps it was never really that simple, but it certainly isn’t now. There are at least four trends in American politics that have complicated efforts to understand and participate in the process.
- Increased Polarization – Perhaps the most obvious change in the American political landscape is the ever-widening gap between the two entrenched ideologies. Social Identity Theory, Self-Categorization Theory, and Schism Theory help us understand why this is happening. People feel an increasing pressure to conform to all of the norms and expectations of their chosen ideology, and they feel an increasing sense of enmity towards those of the opposite ideology. Anyone who doesn’t conform to this natural social process is labeled a bad group member (think “RINO,” which is an acronym for Republican in Name Only) and is ostracized. Understanding what is happening, though, does not make these processes any easier to manage—just ask all the moderate Republicans who have been defeated in primaries by more conservative candidates or the conservative Democrats who have lost their seats in Congress to Republicans.
- Fractures within Established Factions – Interestingly, polarization has not always produced uniformity or even cooperation within the political parties. For years, Republicans sneered at Democrats for their inability to find unity, but now that same division has come to them.
- The Rise of Libertarianism – Furthermore, a rising tide of libertarianism has thrown the whole political landscape into confusion. Libertarians may run for office as members of one of the two established political parties, but that does not mean that they share all, or even most, of that party’s convictions on the issues.
- Increased Feelings of Disenfranchisement – Underlying all of this chaos is a palpable sense of disenfranchisement. The feeling is most clearly seen in leftist protestors and alt-right talk show hosts, but it can also be detected among more traditional participants in the political process. Indeed, the election of Donald Trump (and the protests that followed) as president can be seen as evidence that the electorate as a whole feels that its wishes are not being carried out by those in power.
How have these trends affected political discourse in the United States? No longer can the American political system be likened to a boxing ring with a conservative and a liberal combatant and a moderate referee. It is more like a mixed martial arts octagon with many combatants, no referee, and no rules.
So what are Christians supposed to do? How can we meaningfully and productively engage in the political process when we do not know from one day to the next who will be a friend and who will be an enemy? To be honest, these are difficult questions to answer. The New Testament was written by people who were completely disenfranchised. They had no say over how they were governed. Moreover, they had no investment in Rome’s power, and Rome was suspicious of their exclusive devotion to Christ.
Nevertheless, I think that we can use our basic moral outlook as Christians to guide our engagement in the political process. Here are several principles that I think should guide us.
- Christians should recognize the many and varied ways that human evil has corrupted the structures and values that animate American political, social, and cultural life. Too many Christians equate traditional American values—or the values of their chosen ideology—with the values of Christianity. When we do this, we come perilously close to idolatry. The Scriptures call us to be constantly on the lookout for the deceptive work of the devil and to oppose that work wherever we find it.
- Christians should value faithfulness to Jesus more than the acquisition of power. Christians need to remember that it is not our job to run the universe. It is not our job to control the course of history. That is God’s job. Our job is to be faithful. In a political context, that means we have to stand for what is right even if if costs us an election. It can be difficult to do, especially when the stakes are as high as they are today (see Ed Stetzer’s blog post on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for a discussion of the topic). But being faithful to what we know is right shows that we really do trust God to run the world in a wise manner. It also shows that we are willing to follow Jesus even if he leads us out of a position of power and into suffering.
- Christians should look to Scripture to determine the goals of their political action. The Old Testament called Israel to be a people of justice. While there is enormous debate about what that means, it must still be the foundation of any Christian theory of government. Other theories may make meaningful contributions to our understanding of political life, but, in the end, we must act in ways that make our society more just, whether or not those actions are consistent with the goals of our chosen ideology. Moreover, we need to search the Scriptures for other values that can guide our political actions, and we need to be faithful to those values even if they lead us far away from ideas and relationships that we used to think were important.
- Christians should pursue truth, regardless of its implications for their ideology. In a world of conspiracy theories, media bias, and “alternative facts,” Christians need to be a reliable source of truth. We need to be the people who are always going to tell it like it is, even if that is bad for our chosen candidate or party. Obviously, relentlessly pursuing the truth helps us be faithful to Christ, but it also helps us be more credible witnesses to our world.
- Christians should speak prophetically, both to one another and to society at large. Frankly, we need more people like Russell Moore. We need people who are willing and able to speak the truth in the midst of opposition. Sometimes that opposition comes from outside of the church, but, all too often these days, it comes from within. We need people who are knowledgeable enough and courageous enough to point out the ways in which Christians in America have compromised their devotion to Jesus. And when our leaders speak prophetically, we in the Christian community need to stand with them.
- Christians should devote themselves to bringing people together where possible. We all have an ideological perspective, and devotion to Jesus will not change that. But devotion to Jesus should change how we behave in the political arena. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers (as we discussed a few weeks ago), and that means that we have a responsibility of bringing people together rather than driving them apart.
Let me give you one final thought to consider. I have always been concerned about the consequences of entanglement in the American political system for church leaders. Of course, I have convictions about the policies implemented by the two dominant political parties, but, especially as an ordained minister, I think that it is my responsibility to remain as neutral as possible. For this reason, I am a registered Independent, and I encourage other ministers to do the same.
This course of action requires me to make some sacrifices. For example, in some states, I would be unable to vote in primary elections at all. In other states, I could vote but would give up my independent status by doing so. These are sacrifices that I am willing to make because I believe that my credibility as a voice for the Christian faith is more important than my ability to influence American elections.
I am curious to know what you think about today’s blog post. Share your insights about the following questions in the “Comments” section below.
- Do you think Christians can, or even should, engage in political activities? If not, why not?
- Are there other principles for Christian political engagement that you would add to the ones listed above?
- How, as a Christian leader, do you maintain your devotion to truth, fairness, and honesty when there are so many pressures around you to sacrifice these commitments?