What Christian Politics looks like

Surveys show that one of the reasons millennial are leaving the evangelical church is that they perceive it to be too political. I relate to this (probably because I grew up in another country, and seeing American flags on the front stage of churches is just still very odd to me). The evangelical church has been associated with the conservative Republicans since the 80’s when some guys realized there was a huge sector of society that was uninterested in politics, but if energized, could be a significant political force. 

Living where I do now, in the Bible Belt, I’ve witnessed this pro-Republican talk from the pulpit (along with glorious displays of patriotism on Fourth of July Sundays, complete with red and blue lights and display theatricals. It was a big Baptist church, okay?)

On the flip side, while the National Association of Evangelicals is firmly in support of comprehensive immigration reform, and in one-on-one interviews the majority of evangelical pastors are in favor of it as well, all of them are too scared to talk about it from the pulpit. “It’s just too political,” they say. “I don’t want to risk alienating the congregation.”

If we’re not willing to talk about something like immigration reform, maybe evangelicals are not political enough.

So it made me wonder- what does Christian politics look like? And yes, I think there is such a thing as Christian politics. We could throw in the towel and avoid anything political, but if we are committed to having Christ transform our actual life (not just our Sunday life) our faith is going to have to impact our politics at some point. And our spiritual leaders need to help us navigate that.

Here’s a quick run-down of Christians & politics and how it’s gone for us:

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The plagues that wiped out most of Rome (Getty images)

 

  • The start: Zero political power and persecution under Nero. The church grows and gospel spreads. Christians are willing to stay behind in the cities during plagues to tend to the sick and the dying while the wealthy flee. Compassion is no longer seen as the weak opposite to Roman honor, but a valuable trait. Good.
  • A little later: Constantine converts and Christians have tons of political power. That leads to the crusades. Uh.  Really bad.

FAST FORWARD and jump countries

WHM146809

WHM146809 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98) oil on canvas © Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK German, out of copyright

  • 1500’s Certain protestant and Catholic Kings and Queens vie for power in England, and take turns killing people who don’t believe the same way they do. Bad. 
  • 1800’s William Wilberforce in England spends his life advocating in parliament for the abolition of slavery. Many Christians join his cause. Wilberforce founds several other organizations with the goal of helping the poor, setting up “Sunday schools” to teach poor working children how to read and write. He founds the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Good. 

FAST FORWARD and jump countries

  • 1860’s American Southern white people use the Bible to justify slavery and protect their way of life. Bad. Abolitionists in the North and South of all races use the Bible to justify ending slavery. Good.

FAST FORWARD and jump countries

  • 1900s The British use their Christian beliefs to justify colonization in Africa, and the taking of land from Africans. Bad. 
  • 1948 The Afrikaners use their Dutch Reformed Church beliefs to justify apartheid, a system that protected white minority power and oppressed everyone else. Bad.

FAST FORWARD and jump countries

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The march on Washington (NBCwashington)

  • 1960’s Christians, Jews, Quakers and many others join the non-violent Civil Rights movement, led by many religious leaders (such as Martin Luther King Junior) leading eventually to the Civil Rights act, the Voting rights act, the end of segregation, and the enfranchisement of thousands of African Americans. Good.
  • 1970’s The Catholic movement to provide support to single mothers in order to decrease abortions begins. It starts as a Democratic movement and in the 80’s switches to a Republican movement when it is adopted by the moral majority as one of their main causes.
  • 1990’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu uses his platform to speak out against apartheid, and urges for international pressure to increase and force the opposition to the negotiating table. The first democratic elections are held in 1994.

***

Okay, okay, so that wasn’t a complete overview of Christian history. But the thing I’ve been thinking about is that when Christians are pushing for political reform that helps the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised, we do pretty well. When we push for political ideas that give us more power and protect our own interests, it tends to go pretty badly. We Christians should know by now we don’t do well with power. Once we have power we start thinking like everyone else. We start scheming how to keep it. We start complaining when they take away our prayer in public schools, or when Muslim immigrants move in next door. We see outsiders as a threat to our position of privilege, rather than as a chance to put our faith into action.

To me, it’s disgusting that political scientists can predict “what the evangelical vote” is going to do based on what our own personal interests are: keeping religious liberty for ourselves, increasing our power and voice in the public square, keeping our religion in public places (because it’s not very often those “religious liberty” people talk about the rights of Muslims to pray in public, either). We should be the one group they can’t pin down because we’re always advocating for other people’s rights. We should be talking more about the rights of the immigrant, the refugee, the imprisoned, the recently released prisoner, the unfairly convicted, the Spanish speaker, the young black man, the pollution that’s hurting poor inner city people with no political power, the Muslim, the atheist whose kicked off the town council in a small Southern town. And yes, also the unborn (as well as their mothers and fathers). 

When we do Christian politics right, it may not make things easier or more comfortable for other people who look, think, and talk just like us. But we’re Christians, so we don’t care. We don’t act like all those other special interest groups. We follow this guy who died for us while we were still sinners. We follow this guy who laid down his privilege for the sake of all of us. He didn’t consider his power a thing to be grasped on to. He gave it up.

And he told us to do the same.


GREAT follow up article on Skye Jethani’s blog here: Why we need more politics in the pulpit

Check out what World Relief, a Christian NGO that advocates for refugees and works with local churches to help resettle refugees is doing here. October they are expecting to resettle the largest group of refugees yet.

 

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2 thoughts on “What Christian Politics looks like

  1. Very good post. One thing I would somewhat disagree with….I would say that with the coming of Constantin, the coming of “Christendom”, the church has ever since been co-opted by governments to solidify their own power. And yes…the church mostly like it. I would call it “civil religion”. We’ve been co-opted by political leaders and governments for their own well being. And we are complicit because we think it us in our own well being. And it happens on both sides.

    We try to legislate our own morality, get people to behave like Christians even though they are not Christians. On both sides. One side makes it all about behavior, the other side all about economics. On both sides, we use government, and government uses us. We use government to accomplish what the church should be doing – forming people into a more Christian society. And government uses us to solidify their own power bases.

    Maybe if we are completely kicked out of mainstream society, if “Christendom” finally faills, if our civil religion us blown up, it would be good for Christianity. We could get back to being the counter culture movement we are meant to be.

    • Yes, totally agree about the need to not marry ourselves to politics and political power but instead be a counter cultural movement! However, I think there is still a place for people to advocate for governmental changes that will help vulnerable people (the unborn, the immigrant, etc) while at the same time not waiting for govt to solve problems but stepping up to serve and be the church as well.

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