Christians and politics

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts here by my daughter Kayleigh, in which she and I argued that too much news (TV or internet) is toxic for the soul.  I stand by that.  However, I didn’t mean that we should completely disengage, go “off the grid.”  We have a responsibility to know what is going on in our world, so we can pray about it.  We should also be part of the public debate on the questions our nation is wrestling with.  We should vote in every election, and do so in a prayerfully informed way.  We are part of a distinct minority in world history: People who have the right to select our own leaders, to effectively govern ourselves.  We can’t afford to waste that opportunity!

But how does God want us to engage in public issues?  When I look at political debate in this country today, what I see is greater polarization than ever before.  There’s a win-at-all-costs mentality that says your opponents aren’t just misguided; they’re evil. I hear it when I watch political talk shows and read it when I look at social media: If you believe everything you read and hear, then everyone on one side of the political aisle is an ignorant fascist who rejects science and hates anyone who doesn’t look like them; and everyone on the other side is an amoral Marxist who hates this country and everything that made it great in the first place.  The sad thing is that I see no difference in the way Christians engage in these debates compared to non-Christians, aside from the fact that Christians might tend to use less profanity.  And when I call my Christian friends out on this, some say to me, “These are important issues, life-or-death stuff.  I don’t mind knocking a few heads in defense of what’s right.”  Are they right?  Should we be just as angry, just as manipulative as everyone else on these issues?  Or is there a distinctively Christian way to change culture?  First, let’s look at the history of how God’s people have engaged, and then we’ll extract some biblical principles.

The first Christians were citizens of a pagan empire.  They were a tiny minority, so they didn’t have much cultural influence, and they had no control over who ruled them.  The biblical writers, therefore, never address how a Christian should vote or debate public issues.  But they did give the early Christians a couple of principles that guided how they related to their political leaders.  We see one in Romans 13:1-2, Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  It goes on to say that God uses secular governments to punish evil, even governments made up of godless people.  So the principle was that Christians should be known as good, law-abiding citizens who respect those in authority over them.  We see the other in Acts 5:29, during a moment when the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews who had sentenced Jesus to death, commanded Peter and the other disciples to stop preaching in the name of Christ: We must obey God rather than men!  So the second principle was that when we have to choose between obeying the law of the land or the command of God, we choose God, no matter the cost.  Over the next 300 years, Christians had lots of opportunities to put both those principles into practice. For the most part, they lived in peace.  But periodically, Roman emperors would look at this small but growing group of people who didn’t worship Caesar as a god and rejected their traditional Roman religions and wonder if it was the Christian’s fault that the army had lost a battle, or that a plague or famine had taken place.  So persecutions would break out.  Thousands of Christians were killed, but the movement continued to grow.  One early Christian leader said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Then in 313, the unimaginable happened.  Emperor Constantine for the first time made Christianity legal within the empire with the Edict of Milan.  Almost overnight, being a Christian went from being dangerous to being socially advantageous.  In the centuries to come, in most of Europe, most people were baptized into the Church at birth. So in their thinking, being a Christian and being a citizen of the nation were one and the same.  That meant that the Church gained incredible political and cultural power.  The only way to have a career in science, math, philosophy or other academic fields was through the priesthood, since the Church controlled the universities.  Kings were crowned by bishops and popes. There was no difference between the Church and the State, and that meant that ambitious people who wanted power would seek careers in the ministry.  History is full of horrifying stores of awful things done in the name of God during these years.  Starting in the 1500s, the Protestant Reformation brought people back to the idea that Scripture, not a church officer or council, has sole authority in matters of the soul, and everyone is free to study God’s Word on his or her own.  The Enlightenment followed, and people started to realize that Kings and Queens were merely human, and that there must be a better way to govern nations.

Two centuries later, our nation was born.  In the founding document, in the first amendment, our founding fathers included language intended to give true religious freedom: No one could be prevented from practicing their faith, and no church would have the power to compel people to obey.  They were determined to avoid the mistakes of the Church and State in Europe during the Middle Ages, but they didn’t want to banish the Church from the public square, either.  For most of our nation’s history, Christianity was the dominant cultural influence, and honestly, that was a mixed bag.  At times, we embarrassed ourselves by selectively reading Scripture to suit our prejudices (as some Christians supported slavery and segregation) or by overreaching (Prohibition, for example).  Still, when we think about what is best about our country, we hear echoes of Scripture.  The influence of Christianity on this nation’s culture and politics was, on balance, a blessing.

In the 1980s, a new kind of Christian activism arose.  Christians who were concerned about issues like the killing of unborn life through abortion, the removal of symbols of faith from the public square, the flouting of biblical morality in popular culture and the breakdown of the traditional family began to unify around these issues to become a voting bloc.  They talked about a war to take back our culture from the forces of godlessness.  Since that time, we have become one of the most powerful voting blocs in our nation.  But our cultural influence during that time has declined.  Although we’ve managed to sway some elections and influence some legislation, it’s hard to point to any way in which our culture is more biblical today than it was forty years ago, when this “Culture War” first began.

The public perception of Christianity has suffered, too. In 2011, a poll asked voters if they believed that a candidate who acted immorally in his personal life could still be an ethical leader.  Only 30% of evangelical Christians said yes, which was the lowest of any group.  Yet in 2016, on the same question, 72% of evangelicals said yes, which was now the highest of any group.  Many pundits said, “this proves that evangelicals will change their beliefs just to stay in political power.”  In other words, in politics, we’ve become just like everyone else.  It’s little wonder that when researchers talk to young adults who are leaving organized religion, many say it’s because “churches are too political.”  Isn’t it ironic?  Bible-believing Christians have been so focused on winning a war for the heart of American culture, we’ve driven away huge swaths of the next generation of Jesus-followers.

So how can we learn from the mistakes of our past and, more importantly, obey God’s Word in how we engage public issues?  I think we should agree on the following principles:

People who disagree with us are not our enemies.  Believe it or not, Jesus died for people who believe the exact opposite from you or me.  He loves them just as much as He loves us.  This is no abstract concept.  It should make us profoundly different in how we engage our rivals.  It means we should treat them the way we want to be treated, not the way they treat us.  It means we should be more focused on winning people than winning arguments.  After all, you can insult someone or you can persuade them, but you can’t do both.  It means we should pray for them diligently.  I know, some of you are thinking, “But if we don’t fight as dirty as they do, we’ll lose.”  I’m not so sure that’s true.  But even if it is, consider this: Do you think such behavior, if it suddenly became the common practice for all Christians, would change the nature of political discourse in this country?  I do.  More importantly, it would go a long way to restoring the reputation of Christianity here.

It’s a mistake to put too much hope in any candidate or party.  Philippians 3:20 says, But our citizenship is in Heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. I had a friend several years ago who was angry about how a presidential election turned out.  She said, “I don’t understand how God could do this to us.” I pointed out that since we are free to vote in elections, we tend to get the leaders we deserve; so I didn’t see how this was God’s fault.  She was unconvinced by my comments.  I thought about it later, and it occurred to me that she had placed her hopes on the man she wanted to win that election.  When it didn’t happen, she was crushed.  There’s a word for placing your hope in anything other than God: Idolatry.

Too often, I see Christians bend their theology to fit their politics, when it should be the other way around.  Christians should be a prophetic voice in whichever party they inhabit.  Let me be specific: If you are a Christian who tends to vote Democratic, you should be a voice in that party for the sanctity of unborn life, or religious liberty, and for compassionately upholding biblical standards of sexuality and gender.  If you’re a Christian who tends to vote Republican, you should insist that others of your party pay more attention to poverty, racial inequality, and the humanity of immigrants.  We should hold our leaders accountable, not just to their policy decisions, but also their behavior and speech…especially the leaders we voted for.  Christians should never be seen as loyal soldiers to any political movement, a faithful voting bloc their party can count on; instead, Democrats and Republicans alike should see Christians in their ranks as a constant irritant, the way the Kings of Israel often saw the prophets of old.   

We shouldn’t be motivated by fearThe most commonly repeated statement in Scripture is “Fear not.”  It doesn’t mean that it’s sinful to be afraid; it means fear should not control us, should not steal our joy or keep us from doing God’s will.  Yet when I talk to Christians about politics, what I often hear is fear: “What’s happening to our country?”  “What will happen if they take over?”  The reason God doesn’t want us to fear is because it leads to self-centered decisions, which is the opposite of the way of Jesus.   So Christians should be the first to reject any politician who campaigns by stirring up fear and anger, who brings out the worst in people.  We should insist on leaders who have real ideas, specific proposals.  And we should not let current events steal our joy.  Here’s where yesterday’s blog post and today’s come together: If you find that you are anxious about world events, focused on them instead of God’s mission in the world, turn off the news and pray.  If you find yourself sharing stories on social media that amp up the anxiety of others instead of offering answers, stop it.  Take a social media fast.  You are doing more harm than good, to yourself and the world.

We need to be missionaries, not culture warriors.   For forty years now, we’ve been fighting a war to take back our culture.  I think it’s time to admit it hasn’t worked.  Again, that’s not to say we should stop voting, stop debating important cultural issues. These issues matter to God.  But people matter more.  Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He said, Go into all the world, making disciples of all nations.  Our calling as Christians was never to make America like it was in the 1950s again; it was to make disciples.  Here’s the thing about missionaries: They change the culture they’re in.  Before Christian missionaries came to India, for example, it was still common practice to burn widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands.  Christian missionaries brought literacy, modern medicine, poverty relief and a whole host of other improvements with the Gospel.  In fact, according to sociologist Robert Woodberry, “Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  Keep in mind, those missionaries were there to spread the Gospel, not to address cultural wrongs.  Yet the Gospel has a way of changing the entire environment for the better, like salt and light.  Wouldn’t it be great if the American Church returned to our real calling–loving people in Jesus’ name–and it changed our culture in ways our “Culture War” never could?

Remember, when we were lost in our sin, God didn’t send an elephant or a donkey; He sent a Lamb.  The Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, died in our place so that we could be His.  He didn’t seek power, political or otherwise; instead, He gave up His power–emptied Himself, according to Philippians 2:7–to become our sacrifice.  That’s the extent of His love and grace.  That’s the kind of King He is.  And thank God, long after every election is a distant memory, He will sit on the ultimate throne…forever.

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