Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Attributes of Christian Political Involvement

It’s the presidential election cycle, so evangelicals are in the news again. Which candidate will they support? What price will they exact? Are they even relevant? The New York Times ran a story recently on fissures within the movement (“The Evangelical Crackup”). But anyone who thinks that American Evangelicals are going to dwindle in numbers or retreat into their old fundamentalist cultural withdrawal is deluding himself. Nonetheless, Evangelicals are not primarily a political movement, but a spiritual community. So they are for the most part conscientious and prone to seasons of critical self-assessment. Thus, a growing number of Evangelicals has become uneasy with the spiritual toll that politicking has taken on them personally and on the evangelistic calling for the church. (Consider Blinded By Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America, published in 2000 by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson).

Immediately after the broad Republican congressional defeat in 2006, David Kuo of the JWalking blog published this reflection on the Evangelical soul searching that continues today (“Putting Faith Before Politics,” New York Times, November 16, 2006):

There has been a radical change in the attitudes of evangelicals — it’s just not one that will automatically be in the Democrats’ favor. You see, evangelicals aren’t re-examining their political priorities nearly as much as they are re-examining their spiritual priorities. That could be bad news for both political parties.

John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, the conservative Christian organization that gained notoriety during the 1990s when it represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton, wrote this after the elections: “Modern Christianity, having lost sight of Christ’s teachings, has been co-opted by legalism, materialism and politics. Simply put, it has lost its spirituality.” He went on, “Whereas Christianity was once synonymous with charity, compassion and love for one’s neighbor, today it is more often equated with partisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric and affluent mega-churches.”

Mr. Whitehead is hardly alone. Just before the elections, Gordon MacDonald, an evangelical leader, wrote that he was concerned that some evangelical personalities had been seduced and used by the White House. He worried that the movement might “fragment because it is more identified by a political agenda that seems to be failing and less identified by a commitment to Jesus and his kingdom.”
After the 2006 election, conducted an online survey of 2,000 people. Two findings struck me:

  • nearly 60 percent of non-evangelicals have a more negative view of Jesus because of Christian political involvement
  • nearly 40 percent of evangelicals support the idea of a two-year Christian “fast” from intense political activism

A fast from “intense political activism” may be a healthy exercise for some, but abstaining from political engagement in general would be misguided. Christians are called to be good citizens. In a free republic, good citizens are politically engaged. It would also be a sinful neglect of one’s neighbor’s good. How to go about that political engagement Christianly appears to be the question for us at this end of the Bush presidency.

Let me suggest a theological answer. That is, I suggest that Christian political life in this land of liberty take its bearings from the character of God. I have three particular attributes in mind: his wisdom, his sovereignty and his goodness. In order for God to be trustworthy, he must have all these three attributes. If any one of them were missing, we would have no grounds for trusting him. (I'll leave you to think it through.)

Following this pattern, ...
  • If Christians are obedient to the wisdom of God, we will be a godly influence.
  • If Christians are confident in the sovereignty of God, we will be a humble influence.
  • If Christians are confident in the goodness of God, we will be an effective influence.

It is not enough to be culturally conservative. We have to be biblically faithful. But biblical fidelity entails not only godly ends, but also godly means, godly temperament, and sensible efforts to accomplish those ends in a world that is not amenable to, and even resists, godliness.

However wise we have been at selecting our policy positions, we have behaved terribly in the way we have advocated those positions. As a result of our public involvement over the past thirty years, people have come to see Evangelical Christians as self-righteous, unloving seekers after an earthly kingdom. “Humble” is neither the first nor the last word that comes to mind for most impartial observers. Unlike the non-Christians who share our political positions on matters of justice and morality but who are strangers to Christ, we should be oddly winsome. Though faithful to the truth, we should demonstrate a personal concern for our opponent’s well being. Public debate should be a form of love for neighbor, and evidently so.

As to effectiveness, Jesus calls us to be as wise (Gk, phronimos - prudent, provident) as serpents, but as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). God wants more than good intentions. He wants us to do good. He wants not only veracity, but also charity, and the best charity actually gets things done.

Looking to the next election, the one still ahead of us, Kuo offered these last words:

We will have to wait until 2008 to see just how deep this evangelical spiritual re-examination goes, and how seductive politics will continue to be to committed Christians. Meanwhile, evangelicals aren’t flocking to the Democratic Party. If anything, they are becoming more truly conservative in their recognition of the negative spiritual consequences of political obsession and of the limitations of government power.

Evangelicals should see that we live in tension between two poles. It is wrong for Christians to act franticly in the political arena the way our political opponents do who are without God and without hope in this world, and to grieve the way they do when we lose. It would also be wrong for us to retreat from our responsibility to exercise godly influence in that legitimate and noble sphere of life. Though there are limits to what can be accomplished through politics, there is also an obligation to accomplish what we can, and to do so in the confidence that God does not depend upon our efforts, but does all things well according to his at times surprising and even puzzling will.

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