Christians can and should pursue wisdom and political engagement concurrently. But in this deeply polarized, reactive political climate, is it possible? We think so.
It’s important believers don’t simply mirror a broken world when engaging politics. Here are six ideas to help frame how our thinking can be more characterized by Christian wisdom than by the ways of the world.
We should anticipate a tough season ahead. In our churches we see two opposing dangers. On one hand there are members who want pastors to comment on political issues from the pulpit; on the other hand some hope pastors never speak about politics at all. Regardless of the particular course a church or Christian leader takes, Paul exhorted the Roman church amid their own political turmoil: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).
To encourage peace with others, anticipate and “name” this difficult political season, even if there are no plans for specific issue-engagement. “I know this is a difficult political season. I’d be happy to talk or pray with any of you if you have questions or concerns about it.” Failure to acknowledge the elephant in the room allows Christians in Christ-centered fellowship to carry with them the divisions of the world and unspoken suspicions of one another.
The church already practices politics. The differentiating factor, says Augustine in The City of God, is that our polis (the kingdom of God) is of a higher realm. When a Christian confesses the Lord of the universe who authors history, and that his name is Jesus, that Christian is practicing politics. We transcend our earthly politics when we declare, with Isaiah, that the nations are a drop in the bucket, and mere dust on a scale (Isa. 40:15). Jesus is King, and the nations will come to naught at the end of time; to say so is a political statement.
It is not an evasion of our earthly responsibilities to say there is a higher politics, a higher kingdom, and a higher political community than the temporal nation-state of America.
Further, to regularly take communion to honor our risen Lord (“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”) is to declare an eschatological judgment on all earthly politics. It is not an evasion of our earthly responsibilities to say there is a higher politics, a higher kingdom, and a higher political community than the temporal nation-state of America. To take seriously the language of the New Testament (Eph. 2:19; 3:6; 5:30), we must see our membership in the universal and local church as a higher political allegiance.
3. Be Prudent
While a Christian’s allegiance is in God’s kingdom, we don’t abandon the contingent political concerns in this life, the variables of which can make real differences in people’s lives. Should a Christian advocate and vote for more or less money spent on national defense? What policies help prevent women from getting to that moment of choice in abortion? Where does environmental policy steward God’s creation or compromise the mandate for humans to flourish?
Evaluating these issues requires prudence. Prudence, according to Aquinas, is not simply right versus wrong decisions. Prudence is rooted in the practical decision-making of everyday life. One makes the wisest decision with the most knowledge available. Among other things, to exercise prudence is to determine which matters require silence, and which require prophetic courage.
4. Reframe and Outflank
Much of the vitriol in our national political conversation is exacerbated by cable news, social media, and their framing power to put some issues on our radar while ignoring others. As a result, citizens who rely on mass media for political information are beholden to someone else’s agenda and priorities. Christians are no exception.
Citizens who rely on mass media for political information are beholden to someone else’s agenda and priorities. Christians are no exception.
Christians must think outside cultural frameworks and outflank current political considerations. For instance, almost no national politician has addressed easy-access pornography, no-fault divorce laws, or foster-care abuses. Mass media have co-opted our imaginations such that we can’t even imagine issues and solutions outside the way the discussion is already framed. Christians must maneuver around the established boundaries of political discourse and engage important issues defined by Scripture.
Another powerful effect of mass media is the natural orientation toward the bubbles of New York City or Washington, D.C., making “national politics” the dominant subject of coverage and the lens through which all politics is engaged. Yet politics at the local level arguably affects our lives more. In Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity claims that political issues should be resolved at the level of social organization most consistent with the problem. In other words, local problems should have a local solution, not a state one. State problems should have a state solution, not a national one.
We urge evangelicals to know their locales, and to care about local political issues just as much as—or more than—national ones. You cannot love what you do not know. Local politics is a missional sweet spot for churches that can make real, peaceful, and lasting difference in their communities. For instance, my (Dave’s) own church is often involved in meeting the needs of our local school board as they request help in various school initiatives.
6. Be Joyful
Dour is the mood, and unimaginative the tone, when it comes to mainstream political rhetoric. Pundits of every persuasion insist on the seriousness of the times, but does this necessitate being mean-spirited and boring?
For Christians, there is a holy frivolity born of the Spirit. When the early Christians were beaten and rejected, their political response was to ignore the injunctions against them—and then, to rejoice (Acts 5:41). No matter how serious the issues Christians face, let’s be a joyful people in our public witness, avoiding the gloom-and-doom posture that so characterizes much in political discourse. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, after all, we have a “living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3) we should carry in our very countenance.