Recently I was listening to a podcast discuss how Christian churches shouldn’t have American flags on display, you should quit your government job if it’s at odds with your personal religious convictions, and marrying your politics with your religion is a bad idea. Then the podcast went on to say how they think government welfare programs are great because Jesus wanted us to help the poor. Is it intellectually consistent to allow your religion and politics to mix, but only when we find it convenient? How do we even begin to understand how these two worlds can coexist?
A Brief History of My Political Leanings
This post isn’t an argument for the Left VS Right, or Democrats VS Republicans, but I do want to be transparent about my own political views. I’ve been interested in politics since I was old enough to vote. I’ve always been drawn to the idea that when the government is big, it makes the citizen small (thanks Dennis Prager). I want the government to protect us, but I’m wary of an authoritarian government that tries to fix every ill of society. I think people are capable of governing themselves, and helping each other, and the government should leave refrain from intervening as much as possible.
This post isn’t an argument for a specific political ideology, but a commentary on how we discuss politics, and how our political and religious views coincide. I want this to be a place where people talk about how they are doing life. Sometimes that’s how it relates to us as men (but not always), or as Christians (but not always), or simply as people, and it happens to be from the perspective of a man. The umbrella of life is huge, and we can’t talk about how we do life while ignoring politics.
Why have we gotten so bad at political discourse? How do we as Christians involve ourselves politically in a way that honors God?
There is Hypocrisy on Both Sides
Before I discuss a framework for how religion and politics might work together, I want to discuss the current state of our political dialogue. We have to improve how we talk to each other if we hope to make progress.
The podcast I’ve been listening to is The Liturgists. I started listening as an exercise in being open to differing viewpoints, hoping I would learn something new, but I also secretly hoped it would lead to some ideas I could post here. I appreciate that they approach each topic with a great sense of gentleness. They don’t yell and scream, and they ask a lot of questions. Most of the time they’re really thoughtful about the tone they use, and they speak in a way that invites people to listen. But now and then, they can be a little patronizing to “evangelical Christians” or “conservatives.” The gentle tone they started with fades and starts to feel a little arrogant. While I don’t expect them to be completely inoffensive at all times, it got me thinking about how people talk to each other, and how that affects our receiving of the message.
Thinking You’re Better Than Those You Disagree With
A lot of what I see on Facebook and Twitter is posted with little regard for how it will come across to the person on the other end. Someone posts an off-hand comment about a politician they don’t like, and instead of leading to an intelligent discussion, the entire point of the post is to poke fun at the person. If their like-minded friends reply, they’re in on the gag together and get positive reinforcement. If someone who disagrees chimes in, then it usually gets negative.
I’m sure most people feel it’s justified, or amusing, but it seems counterproductive, and counter-Christ. I get that you don’t like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but why do you regularly insult them on Facebook? Do they deserve it? Are you moving the conversation forward, or cutting it off at the knees?
It’s not that I expect people to agree on everything, but if your social media has a pervasive pettiness to it, then I no longer feel like listening to what you have to say. I feel disillusioned, and no productive discussion seems possible. Maybe we need to think about the motives behind the things we post, and whether or not those motives are consistent with the Christian faith we profess.
This is an area I’ve been challenged in over the last few years. When you think you’re right, it feels good to put it online to prove yourself, like a little “gotcha” to everyone you think is wrong. There’s also a feeling that the loudest and most provocative person gets noticed. This all works great if your main goal is attention, but it does little to convince others to start a genuine discussion.
You Can’t Use Christianity to Back Your Beliefs, But I Can
Once our motives are in the right place, then we can start to consider how our religious and political beliefs influence each other.
Christians on the right routinely cite the bible in discussions about marriage and abortion. Christians on the left use the bible to back their support for government welfare programs and climate legislation. How do we take our religious and political beliefs, and merge them into a belief structure that is intellectually honest? I think there are three possible ways in which our political and religious beliefs can work together.
1. If the bible backs your politics, invoke away!
I think this is what most of us do now. We come to a political position first, and then if the bible backs that position, we use it as ammunition for our argument. Using the bible to back your position some of the time is convenient, but not consistent. How do you explain your political positions that seem at odds with what the bible says? This works well when the bible supports your politics, but fails when it doesn’t.
2. Let the bible inform all your political beliefs.
There’s something more genuine about this approach, because you’re saying first and foremost, I follow Christ and his teaching, and based on that, I’ve developed political beliefs that align with my religious beliefs. The problem is that we don’t live in a theocracy. Does it convince people to say I am pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-environment, or pro-welfare, and my only reason is the bible?
If you let your theology be the only basis for your political ideology, then you run into the problem of forcing your religious views on those who are not religious. You’re not going to convince a non-Christian progressive that marriage is between a man and a woman because that is God’s outline for marriage. You’re not going to convince a non-Christian conservative that a climate accord is good because God created the planet and we need to protect it.
At its best, using the bible to argue your political beliefs is only useful when discussing with other Christians. At its worst, you’re using the bible to make arguments that it wasn’t written to make. Is the bible an instruction manual for government? Christ didn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom, but a spiritual one. We’re to respect those in authority, pay taxes, obey our laws, and pray for our leaders, but none of that establishes or supports any specific governmental policies.
3. Your political beliefs should be inspired by the bible, but defendable without the bible.
When I was in high school, a teacher challenged my belief that abortion is wrong, and he wouldn’t accept a bible verse as an argument. From that point on, I’ve been trying to understand how to develop a world view based on the bible, and then move into the world based on my religious views.
How do I have a constructive political discussion with someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus? Are we simply at an impasse, where I believe the bible, they don’t, and there’s no further discussion possible?
The bible provides a glimpse of the once perfect world God created, and how life should be. This truth will be evident in the imperfect world around us as broken people seek to govern. Through this lens we can begin to develop our worldly political beliefs.
My Beliefs Are Christ Inspired, but Worldly Justified
If the bible pushes me to believe that the unborn are people, there should be plenty of non-biblical reasons to support that. I think I did that in my abortion series. My views on abortion do not rest solely on a few bible verses, but on many arguments about why the unborn should be protected. In this way my political views are consistent with my religious views, but justified in a way that non-religious people can receive it.
The bible can set a course for what I believe, and I can then develop those beliefs in a way that can be applied to the world we live in. I like this way of looking at it, because it allows space for Christians to have differing political views. Christian conservatives and progressives can both believe that we need to help the poor (that’s our push from the bible), but how we care for the poor is up for discussion. We as Christians are starting with the same biblical truth, and then we have loving discussions about what to do.
It’s interesting to put your thoughts in writing, because a lot of that process is me hashing out what I believe and why. One thing I’m afraid of is that as I write something, it can feel very “decided,” like everything here is what I believe, I’m set on it, and if you don’t agree, then you’re wrong.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. I think this is a good way to view religion and politics. I think this is a working model for me as I approach politics through the lens of my Christian faith. This is much more like thoughts written on the back of a napkin, not the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone.
But discussing a framework for how we develop our political views doesn’t matter if our hearts are full of animosity. If our Twitter feeds look like Huffington Post or Drudge, then maybe we need to first change our attitudes? If we can speak to each other gently, then we invite new ideas and meaningful discussion. We can start to realize we are first and foremost Christians. We may not agree on who to vote for, or how to run the country, but we can at least agree that following Christ comes first. That is what guides us in the way we think about the world, and in how we treat each other.