I’ve often said that for Christian leaders, politics is like a skunk: touch it and that’s all anyone will notice about you for a long while. As Christians, our political convictions—no matter how passionately held or biblically based—should always be secondary to the gospel. I may be wrong about my economic views, but I know I’m not wrong about the gospel; and I never want my opinion on the former to prevent people from hearing the latter.
But just because politics is secondary doesn’t mean its irrelevant. There comes a time when the Church needs to actively equip itself to engage in politics. I believe this is one of those times.
The prospect of diving into politics scares a lot of Christians, especially in the younger generation. Many of us are tired of the “culture wars” and all of the poisonous rhetoric that so often accompanies political activism. And years of Christian over-dependence on politics has left most Christians timid to engage in the political process at all. That’s precisely why now, more than ever, we need a positive, proactive vision for how to live out the gospel in the public square.
Bruce Ashford (Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Chris Pappalardo (Lead Researcher and Writer here at the Summit) have given the Church a masterfully constructed blueprint for doing just that. They’ve just released a book called One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics, and I asked them to respond to a few questions about evangelicals and politics today:
J.D.: Tell us a little about the title. What do you mean by “One Nation Under God?”
Bruce: It may be easier to point out what we don’t mean. We don’t mean that the United States is, to borrow President Lincoln’s phrase, an “almost chosen nation.” We’re certainly proud to be Americans, but the title isn’t meant to imply that God looks on our country with special favor as his favorite. Nor is it an attempt to force America to “be Christian,” whatever that might entail.
As the late Richard John Neuhaus put it, calling ourselves “one nation, under God” isn’t a statement of patriotic pride, but of patriotic humility. We stand under the watchful eye of God, and we’ll be held accountable for whether we were faithful to Christ in the political realm. It’s also a statement of hope and aspiration. For all of our failings as a country, we have a uniquely shaped Christian past. And we are unashamed in claiming that Christianity can act as one of the greatest benefits to our society.
J.D.: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that Christians have about politics today?
Chris: When it comes to politics, most Christians fall into one of two ditches. On one side are those people who just cringe hearing the word “politics.” These are the people who admit that politics might be necessary in today’s world. But it’s a necessary evil. If it were possible, these folks would ignore politics altogether. Instead, they want to focus on what God is doing in and through the church.
I understand the frustration from that side. In fact, it comes from seeing Christians who have fallen into the other ditch—throwing all of their hopes and dreams into politics. These are the people who really want to see America transformed for Christ, and they think the only way to do that is through politics.
So on one side, you have Christians who think of politics as nothing. Let’s get out and stay out. But on the other side, you’ve got Christians who think politics is nearly everything. Every victory is euphoria. Every defeat is devastating.
We believe there’s a third way. We can and should care deeply about politics while still caring more deeply about the gospel. Politics matters, but it’s penultimate. The only thing that should get our highest hopes and biggest dreams is the gospel. And in light of that, we’re actually freed up to engage in politics with a renewed sense of freedom.
J.D.: What does it mean to engage in politics “Christianly,” as you put it?
Bruce: I wish Christians were renowned for being the most civil and most gracious members of any public debate. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Far too often, our demeanor is nasty, and we resort to all manner of tricks, schemes, and flat-out lies to advance our “cause.”
We can have all the right beliefs, down to the letter, but if we don’t approach politics with the right motives and the right tone, it won’t be a Christian approach. In other words, we can’t just say Christian things. We’ve got to say them in a Christian way.
In the book, we talk a lot about what it looks like to approach politics with both confidence and humility. Most interactions about politics tend to choose one and ignore the other. Either someone is so timid that they don’t think they have anything to say, or they are so sure of their opinion that everyone who disagrees with them is an ignoramus. As Christians, we should be able to state our positions clearly and boldly, but to be incredibly gracious to others when they disagree with us.
That’s a big part of what it means to interact “Christianly” in politics. We also talk about how our politics should focus on helping all of our fellow citizens flourish—not just our tribe. We talk about taking the long view, instead of just jumping on board with short-term activism. And we try to temper people’s hopes when it comes to politics. It’s a messy world, and we need to have realistic expectations.
J.D.: Are you advocating for a specific party or specific candidate with this book?
Chris: Absolutely not. We make it clear in the book that Jesus is an “equal-opportunity offender.” The gospel critiques every political party and every political candidate. Jesus wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican, and we actually do damage to the political aspect of the gospel when we pigeonhole Jesus into our camp.
Of course, many of the implications of the gospel will fit more neatly into one party line or another. We can easily think of a few presidential candidates whose platforms are sharply in opposition to biblical foundations. But while this book can help you think through the 2016 presidential election, that’s not the point of the book. We’re trying to get people asking gospel-shaped questions.
J.D.: Who is this book for? Do I have to be big into politics to benefit from it?
Bruce: Most Christians I know really want to relate their faith to politics, but they honestly don’t know how. They’re not sure where to start. Others are pretty passionate about politics, but they seem to hold their faith in one hand and their politics in another. They aren’t confident that their political views are truly aligned with their spiritual values. Those are the sorts of people this book is for.
Now, if you’re already a political expert, I’m confident that you’ll learn a lot from the book. It’ll challenge you. It’ll contradict you at times. And it should open your eyes to new perspectives. But this book is equally relevant for people who just want to move from “0 to 1,” who are looking for their first step—people who don’t consider themselves political at all.
J.D.: What is your biggest hope for this book?
Chris: We want to help Christians see the political realm for what it is—not our only means of impacting society, but also not an evil arena to avoid. We hope that Christians reading One Nation Under God will feel equipped to address controversial and often confusing public issues. And, perhaps most importantly, we hope to see Christians start engaging in politics with a truly Christian attitude—with both courage and compassion, grace and truth.