By Sam Speers and Kristopher Norris
As the 2016 election cycle begins amid much pomp and fanfare, American Christians will once again face the question of how to navigate a fraught, and curious, political arena. In what has already been an active early election season, Donald Trump, the real estate mogul, who has divorced twice with a highly publicized affair, boasts wildly about his wealth, degrades women and minorities, and is not an active member of any church, still leads the polling among Evangelical Christians. This when the Republican field boasts an evangelical pastor and a host of others who, unlike Trump, frequently profess their faith and the way faith guides their decisions. His message about American exceptionalism along with his tough talk on immigrants and foreign policy, seem to quite literally trump traditional evangelical concerns about a candidate’s morality or religious beliefs. And this only reinforces a claim made by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their recent book, American Grace, which says that Christians tend to identify more strongly with their political party affiliations than they do their church identity.
Why is this the case? And what can such examples show us, other than a failure of the church to rightly understand its own mission and identity, and more specifically, the way it relates to politics?
American Christians are increasingly aware that the church has a political image problem, and are increasingly eager to repair it. In their 2012 book, unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reported that that two-thirds of young non-Christians and half of young Christians consider the church to be “too involved in politics.” Their research revealed that 110 million adult Americans—including half of conservative Christians—are particularly concerned about the role of conservative Christians in politics. Another major study reports that one of the most significant reasons that the “nones”—the religious unaffiliated—cite for not participating in churches is that they are “too political.”
Neither the Christian left nor the Christian right has been able to articulate a political vision compelling enough to attract broad support among American Christians. And we shouldn’t be surprised by this. Because both the Christian left and the Christian right are entrenched in an understanding of politics grounded in competition and power struggles and partisanship. But this is not the vision of politics we’ve been called to as Christians.
Now at this point in the argument, some Christians will balk: “What do you mean, ‘the vision of politics we’ve been called to as Christians?’ Where is that in Scripture?”
We believe that behind that concern is a thin understanding of politics itself. And this too is no surprise, because our politicians and media outlets from all over the political spectrum consistently reinforce the notion that politics is about power struggles between firmly entrenched partisan camps. That’s how American politics works. But we see in scripture that the same word that forms the base of politics (polis) refers throughout the New Testament to citizenship, allegiance, and one’s way of life (for examples of these uses, see Acts 22:28, Philippians 3:19-20, & Philippians 1:27-28). At its root, politics itself is really about the authority we recognize, the citizenship we claim, and the values we hold to as we pursue a vision of the common good with and for our neighbors. St. Augustine later consolidated these biblical political visions into what became one of the first, and most important, Christian definitions of politics: “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their loves.” For him, politics is ordering our life around what we love; and this seems to be quite a different concept of politics that we often think of today.
If we begin to understand politics this way, we see it all over the gospel narrative. Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming the good news of a coming Kingdom, and died at the hands of an empire threatened by his own quietly confident claim to kingship. Jesus’ life was about inaugurating a new kingdom—that is, a new political order—to be embodied in the world by his church. And, of course, part of inaugurating this new Kingdom was to teach us how we are to live with each other in that Kingdom, and so Jesus came teaching us to love our enemies and pray for those who oppose us, to live peacefully and turn the other cheek, to care for the weak and the vulnerable, the poor and the outcast. Clearly, this is a different sort of King—and a different form of politics—but it is unmistakably political. Because just like the political powers of this world, Jesus claims authority, demands allegiance, confers citizenship, and teaches us what values we are to order our lives around.
So those of us who are Christians have a choice. We can decide that a particular camp of American politics is close enough, and pledge our allegiance to a particular issue or party. We can decide that politics is just dirty and contaminated and has no place in church, and simply avoid political language and activity altogether. Or we can decide that we the church are an inherently political body—a community defined by our allegiance to a new King, our citizenship in a new world, and our call to pursue a new way of life with and for our neighbors. Perhaps our call is not to join a camp or to run from politics altogether, but to embody and bear witness to a different type of politics, one that actually expresses the things we believe are most true about the world.
As long the church looks to the state or the media to define and model politics, its political imagination will be stunted by an overwhelming ethos of partisan rivalry, and its political identity bound to a framework of partisanship. The church needs a new political vision, one that takes its cues about the nature of politics not from the state, but from another political reality: the Kingdom of God.
It was this conviction that led us, just as the 2012 election season began picking up steam, to embark on a journey to find this vision of politics in the practices of local churches. We visited churches, talked with church leaders, and participated in church meetings and events, exploring the ways churches engage and avoid politics in the midst of an adversarial and antagonistic political climate. Five congregations, thirteen plane rides, two stolen iPhones, and nearly two years later, we concluded our research in the middle of a Polar Vortex in Atlanta, ready to sift through hours of interviews and pages of notes.
As it turns out, during our research we caught glimpses of ordinary practices that have the potential to help the church build a new political imagination. Churches all over the country embody this vision every day, whether they realize it or not. We saw it at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which established partnerships with Catholic Charities USA, local government, and secular nonprofits to serve its inner-city neighbors. We saw it at First & Franklin Presbyterian in Baltimore, whose congregation reads aloud the names of people killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—from both sides of the conflict. We saw it at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in southern California, whose medical missionaries were so effective that they were asked to testify before Congress about global healthcare strategy.
These actions may not seem political in the way we have been taught to understand that word, but each demonstrates a way that churches allow their allegiance to Christ’s mission to break down dividing walls and offer a vision of the Kingdom to their congregation, their neighbors, and the world. These are intentionally ordinary, and hopefully relatable, practices from normal churches struggling with the everyday complexities of being the church in our world.
Many American churches are understandably ambivalent about calling their everyday activities “political”. But we believe that claiming their activity—indeed, their very communal identity—as deeply political will help churches more faithfully integrate their goals of spiritual formation and social transformation. And in doing so, they will witness to a world weary of politics that an alternative, even redeemed, political vision is possible.