Christians often jump into the political fray, but it’s not necessarily doing politics or faith any favors.
Whenever there is a lot of power involved, it’s easy to make mistakes. And those mistakes can be costly. David Campbell and Robert Putnam have argued convincingly in this past issue of Foreign Affairs that one of the primary factors in the exodus of young people from traditional churches has been the Religious Right.
A poisonous mix of religion and politics is killing the church.
As a young evangelical, I see two choices: back out of politics all together, or figure out a better way to do it.
The first option is tempting. A lot of good Christians have stepped into the Washington, D.C., arena before, like Billy Graham, only to get burned.
But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.
While it might sound easier just to bow out, I don’t think it’s an option. The choices made in the halls of power—whether in our nation’s capital or in local city halls—have impacts on the lives of real people.
Christians are commanded to love our neighbor. That’s not limited just to our direct personal interactions. Loving our neighbor requires asking questions about what systems and structures in our society help promote human flourishing. That means we need to engage government.
Young Christians, myself included, will make mistakes along the way. But I think there are three starting points that can help keep us on the right track.
First, we need a broader definition of politics. Instead of just thinking of government and elections, we need to understand politics as all the things we do together. What the state does is a part of it but not all of it. When we act with others to build better communities, whether through starting a business or being a good neighbor, those are political acts.
If we expect the world to change just because a politician promised, we’re going to be readily disappointed. We need to be both national advocates for justice on a policy level and local practitioners in our own neighborhoods.
Second, we need a broader definition of “values.” The word is too often associated with a narrow political agenda that discounts the deeply held values of many Americans. While it might surprise some, it’s exactly because of my values as an evangelical Christian that I believe in equal rights for all, gay or straight.
My generation has a broader list of concerns including domestic poverty, pandemic diseases, reducing abortions, the environment and human trafficking. These are all challenges that need government to be a part of the solution, but it won’t be all. It will also require new non-profits, businesses and strong families.
Third, we need to regularly practice our moral imagination. The Golden Rule is at the heart of Christian moral understanding. This means that our starting point always needs to be with people. Jesus told his followers that the religious law was created for people, not the other way around. It’s the same with government; it’s not an end in of itself but is meant to be, as St. Paul said, a “servant for God’s good.”
We need to remember that our neighbors might not always be in close geographic proximity. They could be the child in a failing inner-city school halfway across the country or the man halfway across the world mining the minerals that go into our cell phones.
And our neighbors are people we might disagree with politically. We have to regularly remind ourselves that it is entirely possible to believe that someone might be wrong politically without thinking they are evil. If more people started with that assumption, it might bring some civility to an often caustic election environment.
This is why Sojourners has kicked off our “Voting for Us” campaign with this video. We think there is an opportunity to build a “post-candidate” paradigm for engaging this election. It’s an approach that starts with people and issues instead of personalities or parties.
We hope to engage young Christians in issue-based advocacy but at the same time re-brand for the rest of the country what it looks like to be a Christian engaged in politics. It doesn’t need to be replica of the old Religious Right with just a different list of policy concerns, and we don’t need to bow out of the electoral process all together.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth doing because it matters to our service members overseas, to the clean air and drinking water of future generations, to those who are out of work, to the world’s poorest 1 billion people and to the young and to the old.
It matters to all of us.
Tim King is director of communications at Sojourners.