Will They KNow Us By our Love: Some Recent Musings On Evangelicals and Politics

Christians in the United States, especially evangelicals, have an image problem. Many of those outside the faith (and plenty of insiders, too) have negative views of Christians. From what they see, they have little interest in learning more about the faith.

Some media portrayals of Christians are spiteful caricatures that have little resemblance to real life. But many of the troubling images come from actual events and people. One need not look far to find painful examples of evangelicals making hateful comments, fighting in vicious wars of words, and drowning in their own sense of self-importance.

Evangelicalism, at its heart, is about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with a broken and hurting world. Unfortunately, many evangelical political movements have lost sight of this goal, trading kingdom values for worldly ones.

The problem is not political engagement in and of itself; the problem is that many Christians fail to demonstrate Christ-like character as they engage in politics. As I will attempt to outline in this essay, evangelicals should participate in politics as an act of Christian love, but they should do so in a manner that demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit and with awareness of the limits of politics.

Evangelicals and Political Participation

Government policies matter; decisions made in Washington, in state capitals, and at the local level make a difference for us and our neighbors. It makes sense for evangelicals to be involved in politics and government, as it is such an essential institution in the modern world.

Political participation provides a way—not the only way, but an important one nonetheless—for Christians to live out the great commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Given the possibilities to serve the common good, evangelicals should participate in government, educate themselves on political issues, and advocate for policies they think best.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that politics is messy, and government is fallen and broken (just like everything in the world, including us). Political solutions are necessarily imperfect and, at best, temporarily achieving partial goals. Ultimately, public policy involves a lot of trial and error, attempting one fix to a problem, seeing how well it works (or doesn’t work), and then trying something new. Sometimes government programs can help; other times solutions lie outside the public realm.

Making Room for Christian Disagreement

Given the messiness and complexity of addressing problems politically, it makes sense that evangelicals, like any other group, will disagree on many political issues. Any readers who doubt this statement need only look at past and present dialogue in this online discussion for evidence.

The Bible isn’t an instruction manual on public policy. Instead, it teaches principles and narrates paradigms that apply to all of life, including politics. Although almost all evangelicals will agree on core biblical commitments and most will agree on the end goals of public policy, we should not expect evangelicals to be of one mind about what specific proposals are best to pursue or which policies deserve priority.

Consider some examples. There is widespread agreement that poverty is bad, a strong economy is good, and peace is preferable to war. But even in areas of widespread agreement like these, views diverge significantly on how to achieve agreed-upon goals and what tradeoffs are acceptable to achieve political agreement.

Evangelicals have an important role to play in advocating for policies and programs that they believe will help care for their neighbors and serve the common good. But they need to acknowledge room for disagreement and express their respective views respectfully.

Modeling a Better Way

When evangelicals get involved in politics, they can lose sight of their ultimate goal to love God and neighbor, focusing instead on their own self interests. At their worst, Christian political movements become triumphalist and power-seeking; their leaders are arrogant, contentious, and condescending. At their best, however, Christian political movements can offer a powerful witness of Christ’s upside-down kingdom, modeling humility, grace, and repentance in the public square.

Almost every aspect of the current political climate runs counter to biblical values. Politicians and commentators tend to exaggerate and distort the facts to make political points or entertain an audience. The tone of most political communication is boastful and arrogant; the goal is often to tear down and attack opponents. Social media and the blogosphere abound with comments full of vitriol, spite, and hate.

Christians are far from immune. Some prominent activists on the evangelical left and right speak and act as if they know the mind of God on arcane political matters, explicitly or implicitly communicating that those who disagree with them are on the side of evil. So much of what happens in the political realm seems to fit the Apostle Paul’s description of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5, a list that includes strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy.

Evangelicals have an opportunity to model a different approach. In politics, as in all spheres of life, we should seek to honor God in word and deed. Instead of mirroring the values of the world, Christians are called to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We rarely see such characteristics modeled in contemporary politics as they run counter to the expected “rules of the game.”

Consider the radical dimensions of God’s love outlined in I Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” A robust, Christ-centered politics is an extension of this powerful love; it shifts the focus from self to others, pointing the way to God’s truth with humility and kindness.

Christians can choose humility over arrogance, disagree but remain gracious, and speak the truth in love. Following such principles is not a formula for worldly success, but it is a way to be faithful witnesses for Christ.

Politics and Culture

Although many American evangelicals seek to shape the broader culture through political action, such tactics will often fail. As former Senate staffer and current culture-influencing consultant Mark Rodgers has been saying for many years, “culture is upstream of politics.” Politicians are much more likely to follow trends than to set them. Moving ahead of culture entails significant political risks. It is far easier – and safer – for elected officials to respond to societal change than to try and direct it.

Frederica Mathewes-Green argues a related point when she compares attempts to influence the culture with attempts to control the weather. We may be able to do some things to make a small difference, yet the larger forces of cultural change are often outside our control. Ultimately, she says, Christians need to focus their time and attention on loving those who get caught in the storms so prevalent in our culture.

Evangelicals can and should advocate for public policies that align with their commitments and principles. But when their beliefs run counter to the prevailing culture, they should not expect political success. The best way for evangelicals to shape the broader culture is by living faithful lives, demonstrating the fruits of the spirit, and bearing witness to Christ in word, deed, and truth.

(this essay was originally posted at http://www.respectfulconversation.net/ae-conversation/2013/9/2/will-they...)