Four Myths about Christian Political Engagement

In case you’re keeping count, we are now a mere 371 days away from the 2016 presidential election. And many—if not most—of you are probably less than thrilled about the upcoming political season. Some of that frustration comes from the candidates on offer, but the bulk of it comes from a general annoyance with politics in general. I get it.

The question of politics has always been a tough one for me. On one hand, I often feel guilty for not doing more. Doesn’t obedience require standing up for truth and justice? But on the other hand, as a Christian leader, I often feel guilty for having said too much. Am I putting too many obstacles in the way of the gospel?

If you don’t struggle with that tension, you’ve probably fallen into a ditch on one of two sides, either investing politics with too much weight, or not enough. As Christians, it’s easy to look at politics and want to walk away altogether. It’s much harder—and much more necessary—to engage in politics as one way of impacting our society. The question is: how do we engage in politics without compromising the gospel?

As we enter this gruelingly long political season, here are 4 myths that we, Christian leaders, must avoid:

Myth #1: Secondary political ideals are matters of first importance.

Many people approach politics with an attitude that communicates that political issues are of first importance. If you don’t agree with me on this, then we can’t have fellowship together. But that’s not the case. Christians can (and should) charitably disagree on many issues.

There are two reasons politics has to be secondary for us. First, we might be wrong about some of them. It would be a tragedy to let our error on a secondary issue obscure our testimony about the gospel. I may be wrong about my economic views, but I know I’m not wrong about the gospel; and I don’t want my opinion on the former to prevent people from hearing the latter.

Second, even if we are right, politics simply doesn’t matter as much as the gospel. What do we want to be known for in our churches—political policies or gospel preaching? Learn a lesson from Jesus’ disciples. In the same group you have Matthew the tax collector (part of the right-wing political establishment) and Simon the Zealot (a radical leftist). The Gospels never indicate that they abandoned their political views. But they found unity in Christ that superseded their differences.

Myth #2: Christian truth doesn’t apply to politics.

The freedoms that we enjoy as a nation don’t stand as isolated ideals; they are all founded on generations of Christians engaged in the political process. As Thomas Sowell notes, the Christian worldview teaches incredibly unique things about the nature of man, the value of life, the principles of justice, and the dangers of power. We assume most of those now as givens, but they aren’t. Other worldviews come to different conclusions about all of this, and the vision for public life is accordingly different.

Even our Constitution grounds the rights and freedoms of individuals not in the will of man, but in the will of the Creator. As I’ve heard it said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is the lamb having grounds, before God, on which to contest the vote.” There must be something more than the voice of the majority, and that something is the voice of God.

This is why, when Martin Luther King, Jr. came along, he had the power to say that the American majority was wrong in how it treated black men and women. Racism was written into the law of the land; but King said it violated a higher law, the law of the Creator.

We must never give that up. Even when our society encourages us to leave our Christian convictions at the door, we must politely and firmly resist. The Christian worldview has implications for all of life, so we’ve got to apply it to all of life.

Myth #3: There is never a time to take a controversial political stand.

Many Christian leaders are hesitant to be vocal about political issues because they don’t want to become “those people.” You know the ones. You’ve already blocked their posts on Facebook because everything they say is political … and outraged.

As a general rule, Christian leaders (pastors especially) should teach the truth of Scripture without weighing in on policy decisions. But there is a time, rare though it may be, to speak to policy. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned in the 1930s and 40s, there is a marked difference between “Discrimination is wrong” and “We must oppose the Nazi Party.”

Or think of John the Baptist. He publicly criticized Herod’s sexual ethics, and lost his head for it. I can imagine the bloggers of his day whispering to one another, “If he had just stuck with love and grace, he’d still be alive.” But what was Jesus’ assessment of John? Greatest prophet ever. We must speak the truth to power, even if it means following the path of John the Baptist.

Myth #4: We see everything clearly.

Great Christians can be wrong. As sinful people, we should expect that. It can be embarrassing to go back and read about British pastors who defended imperialism from the Bible, or American pastors who created a “scriptural” basis for African slavery. But it shouldn’t be surprising. Each and every one of us is more deeply indebted to our culture than we will ever know.

The glaring errors of our spiritual ancestors, though, shouldn’t lead us to arrogance. I often hear rhetoric like that. Can you imagine how backwards they were? Thank God we’re so sophisticated and have it figured out! Yes, they were wrong on many points. They had blind spots. And so do we. The proper attitude to take isn’t one of pride, but one of profound humility. We don’t see everything clearly.

Above all things, we must focus on the kingdom to come, the kingdom that is our true home. Only by saturating ourselves in the reality of that kingdom can we effectively live as salt and light in the midst of this kingdom. And we pray that our actions would be lived-out prayers, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”