We live in “all or nothing,” “us or them” times. You’re either all with us—toeing the party line on every front—or you’re with them. You’re either trustworthy because you agree with us on everything, or you’re totally untrustworthy and a dangerous threat—even if simply because you dissent from us 5 percent of the time.
Gone are the days when “nuanced” was a good thing in life or politics, when it was normal and encouraged to support one party’s platform on some issues and another party’s on others. Today this is seen as traitorous. Total tribe loyalty is demanded. If you’re the one politician in your party whose conscience calls you to vote differently, you’re branded a Benedict Arnold. If you’re a celebrity aligned with one party but appear to be friendly with a former president of the opposing one, prepare to be chastised by your tribe.
We should all be scared by these extremist times, but Christians especially should be unsettled. Because one of the byproducts of “all in or all out” tribalization in politics is that one’s political identity slowly becomes preeminent, shaping one’s religious identity rather than the other way around. Over time, full agreement with a political party—because make no mistake, that’s the price of influence—becomes less a begrudging necessity and more an internalized conviction. Soon one’s faith commitments are subordinated beneath, or suspiciously made to square with, one’s political affiliation. And while that may create short-term consonance for your own faith + politics negotiation, it creates long-term dissonance for the broader Christian witness in the world.
One of the byproducts of tribalization in politics is that one’s political identity slowly becomes preeminent, shaping one’s religious identity rather than the other way around.
Here’s the hard truth for believers wanting political influence in these times: consistent faithfulness to Scripture will never square with total alignment with any political party. A gospel agenda is not set by partisan think tanks in Washington, D.C. It’s set by Scripture. A gospel agenda may align with some aspects of one political party and some of another—and should spur us to engage in those areas—but it also decidedly rejects some aspects of both.
God’s agenda is better, bigger, and more glorious than any one party, nation, culture, or time. The mission of Jesus will outlast every White House tenure. It will outlast America itself. For the Christian, the “right side of history” is always the side that places faithfulness to the eternal God above loyalty to a temporal tribe.
Why We Herd
The herding instincts of today’s tribalism are perfectly understandable in an overwhelming information landscape where grasping the complexities of every issue, let alone thinking through one’s position on it, is pretty much impossible for the average person. Paralyzed with the task of keeping up on all the issues and staying sufficiently informed, for our sanity we group issues together and trust leaders and policy wonks to establish positions that are reasonably coherent and consistent with our shared values. This is true for theological and cultural tribes as much as political tribes. We don’t have the brain space to know what we should think about everything, so we look to trusted affinity groups and spokespeople to set or inform our agendas.
For the Christian, the ‘right side of history’ is always the side that places faithfulness to the eternal God above loyalty to a temporal tribe.
To be an independent, nonpartisan thinker is intellectually taxing in a world of rapidly exploding options. The idea of piecemeal identity (e.g., “I’m a pro-life, anti-gun, Reagan conservative with Wendell Berry environmental ethics”) is cool but often the sort of thing only the privileged have space in their lives to experiment with. The reality for most is that life’s hectic pace and today’s chaotic information glut means we must look to someone, or some institution, to set our agenda for us.
The problem, of course, is the sources we look to aren’t always helpful.
No Longer Shaped by Christian Agenda
Many Christians today are being more powerfully catechized by voices on cable news, talk radio, and podcasts than they are by voices from within the church. The average American Christian is likelier to have their views shaped by a political pundit than a preacher; to be more influenced by the bully pulpit of Twitter than the actual pulpit of church.
In her book From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity, political scientist Michele Margolis explores this dynamic of how politics influences religion more than religion influences politics. Writing in the New York Times, Margolis notes that churches in America used to be places where people of diverse political opinions integrated and learned how to have civil, charitable political discourse. “But when politics affects whether and where Americans go to church,” she writes, “even our houses of worship become political echo chambers.”
The gravity of this problem cannot be overstated. If the church of Jesus Christ becomes more shaped by the temporal concerns of contemporary politics than by the eternal, kingdom concerns of Scripture, we’ve surrendered our last shred of relevance in a secular age. Why would a spiritually restless 21st-century person care about faith if faith turns out to be just another clanging cymbal in the deafening cacophony of politicized noise? Yet if faith offers something different—a confident, prophetic clarity that takes its cues from an eternal agenda and speaks to politics rather than from politics, or from anything else peripheral—then it might be worth preserving.
Prophetic from the Center
The gospel’s power is not the power to win elections, legal protections, or economic prosperity. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). It’s incumbent upon churches and Christian institutions today that they orient around this true gospel—the one given to us by God in Scripture—rather than around the various perverse gospels that tempt us: prosperity, power, politics, self-help. This will mean churches and Christian institutions will not fit easily into the “all or nothing” tribes of our day, because to be prophetic from the center point of the gospel is to challenge multiple sides at the same time: conservative and liberal, capitalist and communist, anti-woke and woke. This will mean anger will inevitably come from multiple directions, as will centrifugal forces trying to pull us every which way. Broad popularity will be impossible.
The average American Christian is likelier to have their views shaped by a political pundit than a preacher; to be more influenced by the bully pulpit of Twitter than the actual pulpit of church.
A consistent gospel witness is inevitably uncomfortable because it refuses to be silent on controversial issues or unpopular beliefs that might get you disinvited from a seat at some powerful table or canceled by the overlords of party line enforcement. But that’s OK, because being found faithful by the infinite Creator of the universe is far better than being found faithful by a president or partisan echo chamber.
This is what The Gospel Coalition aspires to be—a ministry driven by no other agenda than God’s gospel agenda. Tim Keller and Don Carson led TGC to be “prophetic from the center” as a resource center to help form disciples of Jesus who believe the gospel and seek to apply it to every aspect of their lives. It is our privilege and joy to constantly return to Scripture as we work out the implications of gospel-shaped life, taking our cues from God’s Word rather than the words of any political movement or cultural trend. TGC’s big initiative in 2020 is not a voter’s guide for the election year. It’s a “Read the Bible” initiative to push readers to immerse themselves in the eternal wisdom of God more than following the fleeting trending topics of the day.
Being found faithful by the infinite Creator of the universe is far better than being found faithful by a president or partisan echo chamber.
When the church fixes its gaze on CNN headlines more regularly than the pages of Scripture, it loses its prophetic edge. When union with the right candidate or cause matters more for Christians than their union with Christ, who would blame young people for losing interest in faith?
But when the church fixes its gaze on Jesus Christ, God’s revealed Word, and an eternal perspective beyond the fleeting stimuli that fill our feeds, we can speak truth prophetically and maybe be heard. When our faith shapes our politics, our sexual ethics, our speech, and everything else—rather than those things shaping our faith—the world might take seriously the gospel we preach.