The American political system is broken. This has been the case for quite some time, but recent elections and events have served to lay bare the dysfunction which has become the norm in Washington. The balkanization of the nation into micro-tribes has been thorough, with utter enmity evident between political parties, within political parties, and between the administration and the media. If democratic politics is the art of compromise, then politics, as we have known it, is dead.
The combination of rank partisanship, angry and unrestrained rhetoric from the highest positions of power, and the seeming inability to acknowledge even a modicum of virtue or sincerity in those being opposed is a recipe for disaster. No representative government is designed to survive such rigid inflexibility.
All of this is distressing for someone who believes deeply in constitutional republicanism. But even more disturbing to me is how many Christians have bought into the current climate, adopting the tone and tenor of the most strident partisans. They violently attack the perceived opposition, often personally and on matters that once might have been viewed as outside the boundaries of political debate. Yet these same individuals will be the first to defend “their guy” from similar (or worse) charges simply because of affiliation.
If democratic politics is the art of compromise, then politics, as we have known it, is dead.
This elevation of tribe above virtue is having several impacts upon the Christian social witness, none of which are good. For starters, there is the deconstruction of what Martin Luther referred to as a “two kingdoms” theology. To Luther, the church and state served different purposes, and used different means to accomplish those purposes. While Christians hold citizenship in both kingdoms, the two were not to be confused or seen as interchangeable. Such thinking has its roots in the Gospels, was developed by Augustine, and is seen in the writings of church leaders like Calvin, Kuyper, and others.
Unfortunately, the lines dividing these two kingdoms are being blurred or erased, while the objectives of both are being conflated. To see the state as a means for a religious end, or to use the Church as a means to a political end, ultimately ends up causing harm to both institutions, forcing them to do something they were not designed to do and are ill-equipped to accomplish.
Next, there is the subsumation of Christian doctrine into a political ideology. Political affiliation or support of this or that candidate replaces the Creeds as the defining characteristic of spiritual fidelity. Assessments of a candidate’s eternal destination are made cursorily and from a great distance, and his or her supporters stand equally condemned. Meanwhile, one’s preferred candidate can be excused for poor—even criminal—behavior that would be heartily condemned had it been perpetrated by his opponent. Poor exegetical arguments comparing disgraced politicians to biblical characters often follow, but fail to exonerate or provide any real reason for support.
By inserting a political litmus test as judge of true belief, any debate on an issue or on a candidate is shut off. “No true Christian could ever support [candidate x]. They [support/oppose] [my political hobby horse issue].” One can’t possibly hold an alternate or even nuanced position. If they do, they are not only wrong, they are mortal enemies, undeserving of mercy—or even civility.
When all Christians have to offer the world is another political solution, they have effectively removed the Transcendent from the equation.
There is also a problem when Christians become politically predictable. Once a political party becomes convinced a constituency feels obligated to vote for their candidates, they can feel free to effectively ignore them—perhaps throwing those voters an occasional bone, or, more likely, just reminding them that the opposition is worse. With evangelical Christians, the current state of affairs is that the Democratic Party can feel free to ignore them because they aren’t going to win them over, while the Republican Party takes them for granted, figuring that no matter what a candidate says or does, they will ultimately get the vote. (I used to think there was a limit to this, but recent elections have led me to believe that there is very little short of televised cannibalism that would deter many evangelicals from voting for an anti-abortion candidate.) And you can flip this scenario when it comes to many social justice, religious left Christians and their support for Democratic candidates who support their big government, social gospel agenda. As a result, the louder and more bombastically these religious voters speak, the less they are being heard.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the hyper-politicization of the Church is the way it prevents the Church from being the Church. That is, how it damages the first call of Christians to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed and to make disciples. Political endeavors, no matter how moral or noble, do not save souls, and to act like any administration or policy can bring about God’s reign here on earth is to engage in a utopianism that the Church has historically rejected. When all Christians have to offer the world is another political solution, they have effectively removed the Transcendent from the equation. And when Christians act in a strident and unforgiving manner in the public square, they do a grave disservice to unbelievers by hiding the love and compassion God has for all. The freedom available to all through Christ is replaced by a legalistic adherence to a political—not even a religious—orthodoxy.
If your avowed faith can be held wholly within one or the other party’s platform, your faith is not big enough, and it probably doesn’t need Jesus to be fulfilled.
None of this is to say that Christians aren’t to care about political issues, or even that there aren’t causes that should animate and energize Christians. Abortion, I believe, is one of those issues. So is the defense of religious liberty, both home and abroad. But so is the care of the poor and offering hospitality to refugees. The Christian faith should transcend politics, calling both sides to be more virtuous and to a higher level of discourse. If your avowed faith can be held wholly within one or the other party’s platform, your faith is not big enough, and it probably doesn’t need Jesus to be fulfilled.
In the “Kingdom of the Left,” the Christian should serve as the winsome conscience of society, calling leaders of all stripes to be faithful to their calling, while knowing that they are also residents in God’s Kingdom, and that, ultimately, God’s will will be done. Amid the cacophony of bleating voices, the Christian should offer something unique—an unwavering adherence to principles, and the willingness to speak out when those principles are violated, regardless of who the violators are. But there must also be an acknowledgement of the limits of man-made government, and the faith that comes from knowing the One who holds all in His hands.
The objective of believers in the public square shouldn’t be winning this race or that election. Such an approach is short-sighted and opens the door to moral and ethical compromise in the name of victory. Rather, the goal should be nothing short of the transformation of the culture in government. This won’t occur in the course of one election cycle, and may not occur for most of a generation. It requires diligence, faith, and a commitment to raising the level of discourse, having the confidence that the strength of one’s ideas can and will win. It believes that giving someone a reason to vote for something trumps fear-mongering. It acknowledges that leaders—good, bad, or indifferent—come and go, but that “the Word of the Lord endures forever.” And it understands that ultimately, there are some things that are bigger than political ideology.
POSTSCRIPT: The intent here is not to indict those of one particular party or the other. There are myriad examples of Christians across the spectrum who are guilty of placing political allegiances above their membership in the family of Christ. The point is to remind Christians of all stripes to be faithful, thoughtful, and above all loving when engaging in politics, remembering whose they are and that they are, above all, to be salt and light in a culture that desperately needs seasoning and illumination.