Watching what’s unfolding in America today is like seeing the rerun of a bad movie.
As a young, patriotic, white, churchgoing Southerner, I was alarmed by the racial, social, and political changes taking place in the 1960s. Southern governors and many local leaders were denouncing the civil-rights movement as inspired by communists. Conspiracy theories alleged that communists, socialists, liberals, blacks, and Jews were all part of a plan to destroy white Christian America.
This supposed conspiracy triggered fear in me, then anger, then increasing radicalization. My father encouraged me to pursue change through normal political processes, but I would not listen. Finally, I got involved in the Ku Klux Klan and violence that nearly destroyed my life.
Many people today are deeply disturbed, even alarmed, by the upheaval in America. Powerful racial, social, cultural, and political forces are all in play and are psychologically disorienting. Polarization is increasing, and conspiracy theories are proliferating, along with extremist groups. Those on both the far right and far left believe violence is the only answer and are eager for it. They’re saying they want civil war. The ongoing street combat between these groups in Portland, Oregon, is providing a training course for extremists who intend to reproduce it in their locales. At the other end of the spectrum, many younger people are disillusioned with politics and have no interest in participating in the political process at all.
How should followers of Jesus Christ approach politics today? Before all else, we must examine our hearts to ensure that our highest motive and goal is to please God and help others. And we should keep ever before us the fact that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20), not just on earth. As heavenly citizens inhabiting a fallen world, our first allegiance must always be to Jesus Christ, not to country, party, or cause. First and foremost, we’re disciples of Jesus—not patriots, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Independents.
How should followers of Jesus Christ approach politics today? Before all else, we must examine our hearts to ensure that our highest motive and goal is to please God and help others.
If our highest loyalty is to Christ, we will seek to obey his teaching and follow his example—especially to love our neighbor, and even our enemy. In the political realm, this entails seeking the common good. It means working to preserve and advance what is good, true, and beautiful in society, which includes what is just, right, and fair (as seen through the lens of Scripture). It begins by doing our homework to ensure we’re voting and working for the candidates whose character, competence, and policies are most compatible with biblical teaching and the common good.
Any political action believers undertake must be cruciform—in the shape of the cross. It must be characterized by the loving, humble, and gentle spirit of Jesus, whom we profess to follow, and not by the godless hardball politics of the world. Humility, so rare in political life, is especially vital in a day when pugnacious pride tends to block gentle love. In the spirit of Jesus, cruciform political action will seek the good of all citizens. It will not be proud, arrogant, angry, hostile, or filled with hate toward those with opposing values and views. Instead, it will be gracious, respectful, and reasonable—and will disagree agreeably. It will reject the philosophy that “the end justifies the means” and therefore will eschew a “scorched-earth policy” against opponents—one that employs underhanded, ruthless, immoral methods. Rather, it will operate with honesty and integrity. It will work hard, pray earnestly and often, and trust God for the outcome. In these and many other ways, it will be “in the world, but not of the world,” and in so doing, it will bear faithful witness to Jesus.
Our political action must be cruciform—in the shape of the cross. It must be characterized by the loving, humble, and gentle spirit of Jesus, whom we profess to follow, and not by the godless hardball politics of the world.
Some will object that this is idealistic and naïve nonsense, and that you can’t win at politics this way. But even though followers of Jesus seek success, they seek faithfulness more. Sacrificing integrity in order to win some earthly good is a price too high to pay. Moreover, history shows that following Christ’s teaching and example isn’t idealistic and naïve, and it doesn’t mean automatic failure. Some historians have suggested that the 18th-century evangelical awakening in England—associated with John Wesley, George Whitefield, and the Clapham Group—produced social reforms that helped spare England from the revolution France experienced in 1789.
Believers who engage in political action must be ever mindful that while such involvement is necessary, it is not sufficient. For America’s social and political problems are finally moral and religious. Political action that isn’t grounded in biblical revelation and ethics, then, is simply not adequate to the task before us, and relying on godless philosophical assumptions can be inimical to biblical faith and witness.
But if political action, though necessary, isn’t our ultimate hope and solution, what is?
We must go to the root of the problem and pursue spiritual renewal—a revival of religious life—out of which can emerge renewed moral life that elevates the culture. America has a lot to answer for and is in desperate need of true revival and renewal, lest national judgment overtake us. This must begin in the church, which in many places has compromised itself with the world and the flesh far more than we realize. Only spiritual renewal can free us from worldliness and provide the foundations essential for escaping the gravitational pull of secularism and recovering what is good about America—for believers and nonbelievers alike.
What is the nature of the revival we need? It isn’t simply a time of heightened religious excitement or the experience of unusual phenomena. True revival is always more. It’s the Holy Spirit drawing near and bringing a sense of God’s holiness, conviction of sin, repentance, joyful devotion to Christ and his kingdom, and love for others. J. I. Packer describes it well:
Revival is the Holy Spirit sensitizing souls to divine realities and so generating deep-level responses to God in the form of faith and repentance, praise and prayer, love and joy, works of benevolence and service, and initiatives of outreach and sharing.
The history of revival documents many instances of such revivals influencing local and national cultures. In the Welsh revival of 1904, for example, many taverns went out of business for lack of patrons, and police were laid off because crime virtually ceased.
Only out of a revived church and the conversion of multitudes can God be glorified and we find the resources necessary for turning back the secularization that is strangling our spiritual lives, undermining our moral lives, and destroying our culture’s soul. It has happened before, and it can happen again. May we humble ourselves before God and, in earnest prayer, fasting, and repentance, turn from our sins and pray for yet another revelation of his reviving power and glory in our day.