The Role of American Christians in Politics

     Tim Keller wrote an opinion article for the NY Times regarding the role of Christians in politics: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html

     I agree with him that “Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo.”  He gives the examples of early 19th century American churches and the issue of slavery.  To his example, I would add 20th century American churches and the issue of segregation.  Martin Luther King Jr came from a Baptist background and spoke vehemently against racial discrimination.  His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is essentially a message from an overseer imploring his fellow overseers to stop implicitly supporting the status quo by their silence and inaction.

     Lord Jesus commanded His believers to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Naturally, to faithfully follow that command would entail being involved politically to an extent.  Keller provides the examples of working for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation.  I agree with these platforms.

     The main thesis statement that Keller provides is this: “While believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.”

His reasons for this position are the following:
1. To identify the Christian faith with a political party as the only Christian one would give the impression that to accept the Christian faith, you need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the Party; religion would simply be another voting block aiming for power.
2. Most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom.
3. “Package-deal ethics”: political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.

     I generally agree with Keller in the first reason that we should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.  But we do have to point out to observers that Christianity teaches values that will lead us towards one party over another on several different issues.  On issues like abortion, immigration, climate change/environment, healthcare, public schools, gun safety, capitalism/socialism, appropriate police force, minority rights, and the like, the two parties have different perspectives that we should critically examine and peruse.  We will do our best to vote according to our values.  That will naturally mean that we might vote Democrat on one issue while we vote Republican on another issue.

     In other words, Christianity will lead us towards platforms that just happen to be considered liberal and/or conservative according to our modern political definitions.

     I understand how Keller says, “religion would simply be another voting block aiming for power,” since that is how the outside world would see the political dynamic, but I feel the paradigm would be better framed as “religion is working with the power it already has as an American citizen granted by the U.S. Constitution.”

     American Christians are also American citizens, and so we have power granted to us legally by the Constitution, and since that power ultimately comes from God, we should therefore, use that power as responsibly as we can.  In other words, we are using the legal opportunities provided to us to pursue God’s glory and the joy of our neighbors.

     I definitely agree with Keller that Christians could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum with loyalties to different political strategies.

     But the issue exists that even when one side promotes a particular strategy, sometimes the way they go about the strategy and the degree to which they pursue it needs to be considered and rebuked.

     If the United States is a patient, the government is the immune system.  Generally speaking, you want to have a healthy and intact immune system to function well for the health of the patient.  If the immune system is too weak or does not function frequently enough, the patient suffers from opportunistic infections.  If the system is too strong or operates too often, the patient suffers from autoimmune diseases such as lupus.  So on issues like healthcare, economics, or immigration, I personally find the matter to be one of finetuning the system for optimal performance.  The Democratic and Republican parties act essentially like dials.

     On immigration: Republicans would dial up while Democrats want to dial down.
-too strict: we risk being inhospitable
-too lax: we risk endangering our own people from violent criminal aliens.

On gun safety: Democrats want to dial up while Republicans want to keep the status quo or dial down.
-too strict: abuse of power, extreme power imbalance between the government and private citizens
-too lax: endanger public safety from people who should not have guns

On healthcare: Democrats want to dial up while Republicans want to dial down.
-too strict: risk for corruption and incompetence from government employees and their benefactors (think Venezuela)
-too lax: monopolized insurance companies and hospitals that jack up prices at patient expense.

     The conclusion that I’ve come to on issues such as the above, is that we do our best to approximate that happy middle ground between the two extremes, much as I would try to do for a patient with a dysfunctional immune system.  I do my best to consider where we are at as a country on a particular issue and seek to move towards that optimal middle.

     If you were to ask me where I stand on the above issues, I currently feel the Democratic position on issues like immigration and healthcare are too extreme, so I would vote Republican on those issues.  But on an issue like gun safety, I would vote Democrat because I felt the Republican position was too extreme on that end.

     Thus, in the context of American politics, liberal or conservative are not inherently good or evil.  Because of their “package-deal” quality, the platforms on the political spectrum should prompt Christians to practice the art of discernment well, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

     This “package-deal ethics” puts pressure on Christians in politics.  Tim Keller said it well, “Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family.  One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.”

     I’m reminded of how Joshua once asked the commander of the army of the LORD, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”  I love how the commander, who I personally believe to be the preincarnate Lord Jesus, said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the LORD.”  (Joshua 5:13-14)

     It should be expected that Christians and the church will not fit neatly into contemporary political alignments.  God the Son did not fit neatly with Joshua’s army or the Canaanites because both parties had sins, problems, and issues that are held accountable to God’s universal holy standards.  Even when Lord Jesus walked among us in 1st century Palestine, He did not fit in neatly with the prevailing religious political spectrum of the time.  He was neither a liberal Sadducee nor a conservative Pharisee.  Both religious parties had a hand in His crucifixion.

     Keller believes that Christians are pushed toward two options:
-withdraw and try to be apolitical
-assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table.

     I can see how Keller could come to these conclusions, and he states that he does not believe either of these options are acceptable for Christians.  I agree with him that these options are not acceptable.  I would also add to his comment that Christians have a third option.  It’s the “be in the world, not of the world, and remember that we are sent to the world” option.

     As American Christians, we should be involved in the political process, since those are the circumstances we find ourselves in.  We find ourselves in a political position to make great change for our neighbors both inside our country and outside because of the way the Constitution made America a representative constitutional democracy.

     I do not believe Christians have to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table.  The possibility exists that you could choose either party and reform it from within, or you could leave one for the other in an attempt to rebuke the party being left in hopes of reforming it.

     You could also always write to your respective representative senator in hopes of changing their mind on a political issue.  My views on gun safety might be considered Democratic/liberal relative to some of my peers, but I still convinced my Republican Senator to vote my way on the issue.

     So my take-home points are:
-Christians should be involved in politics to faithfully follow Lord Jesus’ commands to “Love your neighbor as yourself”
-Avoiding all political discussions and engagement are essentially supporting the social status quo.
(Now there is a place for waiting for a more opportune time to discuss certain issues of the day, but sometimes some issues take priority because of their urgency)
-The Christian faith should not be solely identified with a single political party, especially since each political party take such different positions on different issues.
-The Christian faith will cause us to pursue platforms that just happen to be labeled liberal or conservative according to modern political definitions.
-We should rebuke “Package-deal ethics” because both Democratic and Republican parties occasionally hold views that need to be examined and rebuked according to God’s universal standards as revealed in the Bible.  Both of them have some redeeming qualities and some sins that need to be rebuked.  Christians will always have a prophetic duty to hold our neighbors and ourselves accountable to the Lord’s universal standards of justice.
-Sometimes the Democratic and Republican positions are dials on certain issues like immigration, gun safety, and healthcare.  I generally seek to find the optimal middle ground and avoid the extreme ends each side tends to make.

3 thoughts on “The Role of American Christians in Politics

  1. Aaron Lee says:

    This is a thoughtful and nuanced take on Keller’s article. The patient/immune system analogy is fitting! When you say you convinced your Senator to vote your way on gun safety – did I miss this blog post?

    Like

  2. MUSICGOON says:

    This was a thoughtful and nuanced take on his article. Your patient/immune system analogy was fitting! Did I miss the post on how you convinced your Senator to vote your way on gun safety?

    Like

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