Read Part 1.
Should Christians be engaged in the American political process? Should involvement in politics ever go beyond a bit of reading and vote-casting? Do pastors and teachers have an obligation to address political topics? Should churches be involved in any way?
Many doctrinally-serious evangelicals and fundamentalists are now answering all of these questions in the negative. But do their objections to Christian political engagement justify keeping political thought and activity to such a minimum? In Part 1 of this series, I began considering and answering several representative objections to more-than-voting involvement in politics. Here, I’ll evaluate several more objections.
First, some attention to the meaning of “political engagement” may be helpful.
Forms and levels of political engagement
For the purposes of this article, “engagement” occurs in two forms and on many levels. The form of engagement may consist of involvement with the ideas or involvement with the process—or both of these. We are ideologically engaged when we ponder points of political (and social) philosophy that relate to the political issues facing our society and seek to think biblically about them. We are involved in the process whenever we act to influence the choice of leaders or policies, whether the action is writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, calling a legislator, marching in a rally or simply casting a vote.
These forms of engagement also occur on many levels. At the most basic, minimal level, idea engagement means listening to the claims of political figures and considering whether they are true in light of what we already know from Scripture. Engagement at the deepest level might take the form of earning a PhD in political theory or writing a book, working for a think-tank, or touring the country on a lecture series.
Casting a vote is pretty much the minimal level of process engagement. Arguably, putting a bumper sticker on the car is more visible but less influential on the final result of an election or policy decision. Deeper levels of engagement range from passing out campaign literature, to donating, to joining a campaign staff, to holding public office.
Options and obligations
With that as a backdrop, my thesis is that Christians may be involved politically in both forms and all levels as God calls them to do so. Deep levels of engagement are analogous to vocation. All Christians are not obligated to be dentists, but God calls some to that line of work. So we expect some to choose that occupation and strive to perform it as Christian a manner as possible. Similarly, we should expect some believers to choose heavy involvement in political thought and process and to pursue that work “Christianly.” But that level of involvement isn’t for everyone any more than dentistry is for everyone.
A second piece of my thesis is that all Christians ought to be engaged with political ideas at more than the minimal level and should be engaged with the political process at least at the minimal level. That is, Christians should vote but do a bit more thinking than the average citizen. This engagement is analogous to being employed. Sometimes circumstances require periods of unemployment (home making is employment, just to be clear), but we generally have an obligation to be involved in productive work. Similarly, though the level varies, we have an obligation to be involved in thinking about how Scripture speaks to the issues of our day and casting votes when those opportunities arise.
Since pastors and teachers are called directly to the work of bringing Scripture to bear on the lives of their hearers, their responsibility to be engaged with political thought is greater than that of their hearers.
Many believe ministry is distracted and sullied by preaching and teaching on political topics or even by engaging in political conversation with unbelievers or new Christians. On multiple grounds, they object to any political engagement at this level or deeper.
Objection 5: I’m just not interested in politics—it’s too ugly (when it isn’t boring).
This objection wins the honesty prize. It may be the real objection underlying several of the more dressed-up ones. And at this point in the election cycle, when political ads fill the airwaves (and website pages), the ugly side of politics is undeniable. Who hasn’t been disappointed to see a candidate they liked air an ad smearing an opponent with some distortion or exaggeration or overwrought drama?
Nobody should be faulted for finding that distasteful. And finding politics to be generally uninteresting is no great flaw either.
But do we reject an activity on the grounds that so many do it badly? And is a pursuit unimportant just because we are not naturally inclined to find it interesting?
Christians have no obligation to like the political process in America or anywhere else. But we should care about politics because the leaders and legislation that come out of the process powerfully shape the kind of world our children and grandchildren will grow up in (for as long as we await Christ’s return). In addition, politicking—though often ugly—is how we influence the well being of large numbers of “neighbors” (Matt. 22:39). If we would care about a stray cat, we ought to care about politics.
It’s true that public policy is not the only means of reducing suffering and improving people’s lives, but it is one of the most important. It influences all the other means. Our ability to engage in charity privately or through Christian non-profits depends on the freedom to do so. Our ability to obtain the resources to give to good causes depends on employment, which depends on a reasonably healthy economy. These and many other factors are heavily influenced by public policy and those who make it.
Objection 6: The church is great danger of being seduced into activities that distract from its primary mission.
Church history certainly backs this objection. To some, history proves that the church loses spiritual power as it gains political power. Though that principle may be harder to align with the events of the Reformation, it certainly seems to describe the trend from Constantine’s era to the 16th century.
But, for several reasons, the potential of the church to be distracted by politics does not argue for avoiding all engagement beyond the secret ballot. One reason is that gaining power over the political process or institutions is not the same thing as gaining influence in political thought. Through its preaching and teaching ministry, the church is ideologically engaged in the form of applying Scripture to the lives of its members. Assuming the Scriptures are being handled accurately and comprehensively, how can this teaching result in less spiritual power or distraction from the church’s mission?
A second reason the objection fails is that a wide variety of potential distractions face the church, including financial concerns, building buildings and engaging in ministries of compassion. None of these are central to the church’s mission, but all connect to it in one way or another. Anything ancillary runs the risk of becoming primary. The solution in these cases is not to sever what’s ancillary but to keep it in its place.
Capitalism’s most foundational principles are not what they are commonly represented to be. For example, capitalism ultimately depends on the idea that the value of goods and services derives from human beliefs and affections,1 not some mechanistic calculation of labor and materials. So while many materialists practice capitalism and enjoy its benefits, the system itself rejects a materialistic view of life and value.2
Capitalism also depends on—and actively encourages—interest in the needs and desires of others and on long term success rather than instant gratification. In a free market, the “market” part disappears unless merchants take risks based on what they believe other human beings will need, or at least want. At the very least, successful free marketers grow or stock up on a product they believe will be desired by their friends and neighbors in coming months. On a larger scale, entrepreneurs spend years and fortunes researching and developing products they believe very large numbers of people will want in sufficient quantities to reward the investment.
Capitalism also aims to increase the well being of everyone. Historically, it has held that God providentially designed human society in such a way3 that ordinary (and often even evil) self-interest motivates people to do what actually helps other people as they trade with one another freely in a law-abiding environment. Capitalism claims that the long term result of this freedom is that more wealth is created, not merely transferred from one to another. While the rich do get richer, the poor do as well.
Compared to real world alternatives, nothing helps the poor more than capitalism.
But is it “based on greed”? This one of the many popular myths that have been repeated and assumed so frequently, they have reached “common knowledge” status. Nobody bothers to prove that “capitalism is based on greed.” The truth, though, is that capitalism does not encourage greed, but rather attempts to organize economies in a way that accounts for the fact that greed already exists (and isn’t going away any time soon).
Interestingly, many who deplore the greed of capitalism or of free individuals in a capitalistic system, turn a blind eye toward the greed of government. It’s almost as though they believe human beings acting collectively in the form of government are inherently more virtuous than human beings looking out for their families and future generations. Christians ought to be skeptical of the idea that people in public office are less greedy with citizens’ earnings than the citizens themselves.
Objection 8: Striving to advance moral issues through legislation just makes us look hateful and self-righteous in the eyes of people we hope to reach with the gospel.
The idea that being involved in politics in a visible and vocal way might be a hindrance to effective gospel witness is a sobering one. Certainly it’s a factor believers must consider as they evaluate their level of political engagement. On a personal level, Christians must consider the consequences of expressing political opinions in the context of relationships they have with individual unbelievers.
But we must also be realistic about how much offense can be avoided. All areas of thought and life are to be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ by applying the principles of His Word. When we do this, our behavior invariably repels and even offends some unbelievers along the way (1 Pet. 4:4). Ultimately, there is no way to completely avoid alienating sinners apart from being exactly like them. So the question is not, “Should we let anything become a barrier to effective witness?” but rather “What kinds of things are worth that offense and in what situations?”
There is no one size-fits-all answer. If it were true—as many mistakenly believe—that political concerns have no relationship to the teaching of Scripture (see Part 1 on that), there would be no situation in which expressing a political opinion among unbelievers would be worth the potential damage. As it is, Christians are often pursuing policies that are truly compassionate, though they are widely seen as hateful or “phobic.” Are we to do what is good for our neighbors only when our neighbors will understand and appreciate that good?
Christians must consider both the form and level of their involvement in politics. Ideological involvement is the responsibility of every Christian as well as a responsibility of the teaching ministry of local churches. Process involvement is a duty of believers as well, though churches have little to contribute in this area. As for the level of involvement, heavy involvement is not for everyone, nor does it come without difficulty or risk. Individual Christians should aim to wisely discern what level of involvement God intends for them.
Regardless of the particulars, Christians should not be lulled into thinking that the Bible is neutral about political issues. Policies are rooted in beliefs about human nature, the role of government, crime, poverty and property—and Scripture speaks to these matters with a clear voice.
1 It’s true that Adam Smith was less than clear on this point. Nonetheless, the economic system he is credited with fathering collapses without a subjective view of value.
2 Again, Richards is brilliant on this point. See pp. 68-70, and 92-110.
3 Adam Smith’s belief in God’s providence is evident, for example, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.I.106 (accessed 10/25/10). For an interesting essay on the role of providence in capitalist thought, see Robin Klay and John Lunn in Journal of Markets & Morality Volume 6, Number 2 (Fall 2003): 541–564 (PDF; accessed 10/25/10).