Christians have been discussing and debating the proper relationship of the church and politics for centuries - from works by the Church Fathers, such as Augustine's “The City of God,” to more modern treatments from people of all political stripes; from scholarly books like Nieburh's Christ and Culture to bumper sticker slogans like the Sojourners' “God is not a Republican... or a Democrat”; from the Pilgrims' attempt to create an explicitly Christian society on earth to many Quakers' avoidance of all politics. With the American political scene in full swing preparing for the 2016 presidential elections, and with partisanship in American politics at an all-time high, Christians' discussions and debates are as active as ever, with blog posts and editorials and voter guides telling Christians how they ought to vote. Perhaps, before we get into specific issues of partisan politics, we should spend a bit of timing considering how we ought to approach politics in the first place. Here are some (hopefully!) non-partisan thoughts along those lines.
As Christians, we should seek the truth. Jesus said that he is the truth (Jn 14:6) and that the reason he came into the world was to proclaim the truth (Jn 18:37). Obviously, the Truth to which he refers is much bigger and of more ultimate importance than our political debates - but as followers of the Truth, we ought to be open to smaller truths as well. William Falk writes in The Week (December 18, 2015):
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Though this quote is often attributed to John Maynard Keynes, its provenance is uncertain. There's no question, however, about its instructive value. The world is confoundingly complex, and will make a fool of anyone who ignores contrary new information. But with our country so politically polarized… the process of adjusting to new facts - so essential to sound public policy - rarely occurs… For a change, wouldn't it be encouraging to hear a gun-rights advocate say: I'm all for the Second Amendment, but to reduce the death toll of mass shootings, let's ban magazines of more than 10 rounds and institute strong, universal background checks? Wouldn't it be reassuring to hear President Obama say: I can now see that a long war of attrition against ISIS isn't sufficient - we need an accelerated new strategy?
Humans are prone to confirmation bias - interpreting any and all information in a way that reinforces our existing beliefs, and rejecting information that challenges those beliefs. Unfortunately, the huge variety of Internet sites and the availability of partisan news media makes it easy to avoid information that challenges our preexisting ideas, but if we're committed to seeking the truth, we should do better than that.
As Christians, we should practice charity. Charity, in the sense of “a disposition to think the best of others that the case will allow” (to quote Jonathan Edwards) is never directly commanded in the Bible, but it's a clear application of Christian principles. So many political discussions involve assuming the worst of our opponents – conspiracy theories, impugning motives, and so on.
And, of course, we should love our political enemies. I like C.S. Lewis's description of what this means:
The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? (_Mere Christianity_i, p. 91)
Would we pass this test for Clinton? Cruz? Sanders? Trump?
As Christians, we should practice humility. I'll be honest: I have absolutely no idea what the U.S. should do about Syria. In between a years-old civil war, a dictator, ISIS, and now Russia, it seems that there are no good solutions, and our recent history in Afghanistan and Iraq shows that military solutions are far from certain. I'm glad that there are people better informed than I - but there's an arrogance in assuming that our particular opinion about what ought to be done is right and others must certainly be wrong. Even more chronic issues like poverty or the environment are wicked problems, with no clear solutions or even clear agreement on the problem. These complexities should give us some measure of humility in whatever policies we espouse for dealing with them.
We also need humility to realize that the problems are not, in this world, ultimately solvable. There will always be war (Mk 13:7) and poverty (Mt 26:11), and although we need to do the best we can, we should not be so arrogant as to think that we can destroy all of our enemies with the right application of military force, that we can befriend them all with the proper diplomacy, or that we can eliminate poverty if we just find the proper social programs.
As Christians, we should work toward peace. Partisanship and polarization in U.S. politics is, in many ways, higher than it's ever been, and numerous articles and news shows have discussed the growing rift between liberals and conservatives. However, Jesus blesses the peacemakers, and he did so at a time when the political scene included hated foreign occupiers, religious hard-liners, and radical Zealots.
Many of the political issues facing our country are serious, and our disagreements are correspondingly serious, but that doesn't have to be the full picture. We can find areas of commonality. We can look for compromise. We can look at both sides of each issue. I appreciated Joe Biden's statement: “The other team is not the enemy.”
As Christians, we shouldn't resort too quickly to force. In a fallen world, war is sometimes necessary (Rom 13:4), but it's never “good.” A decision to go out and destroy, to sacrifice lives, to kill those made in God's likeness, should never be made lightly. Moreover, we serve a Lord who set aside his own power (Phil 2:6) and who rejected the use of force to further his aims (Jn 18:36).
When and under what circumstances we should use force is too broad a topic to address in a single blog post, and it's a question about which Christians legitimately disagree. Hopefully, though, we can agree that it should at least give us pause to hear politicians boast how they'll obliterate our enemies overseas or talk about giving political power to Christians to use against our opponents.
As Christians, we should show compassion. This may be aimed at political conservatives more than liberals, since it seems that conservatives often promote political positions – opposing welfare or universal health care, opposing illegal immigration, closing borders to refugees, and so on – without considering the human costs of these positions – to people crushed by poverty or facing health problems which they have no way to pay for, Mexicans fleeing drug violence and trying to provide for their families, Syrians escaping a brutal civil war.
This isn't to say that there aren't legitimate legal, economic, and social arguments for any of these positions – but let's not be jerks about it. And, if Christian conservatives are going to spend our time and energy in politics, arguing that government isn't the answer, then let's make sure we spend at least as much time and energy as the church, meeting needs and being part of the answer.
As Christians, we should not give in to fear. So much of the current political scene is motivated by fear: of a weak economy, of terrorism, of climate change, of Wall Street and the 1%, of the other political party winning the White House. We fear that we're losing or have lost economic security; that we're failing to stop enemies overseas; that America is changing in ways we don't like or has failed to change in ways it needs to. There's all kinds of bad stuff to fear, and much of the bad stuff is real, but let's change how we respond: take the bad stuff to God, in lament and in prayer, and trust him to provide our security, even when the economy and international affairs and political power can't.