4 Problems

with Politics and the Church

Edited by Drew Friesen

Photo Courtesy of BHR2AL

By Jeremy Too

Published October 1st, 2020

1. Believers on Both Sides

            It takes little more than a scroll through one’s social media feed, a turn of the page in the weekly edition, and a few seconds of flipping through news channels to catch wind of the political divide that is taking place. With a controversial election looming in November, Americans everywhere are looking forward, albeit many with dread rather than anticipation, to the conclusion of the whirlwind that has been the presidential race this election season. Although political division is nothing new to America, what does seem new is the pervasiveness of the division, crawling into every facet of our lives far beyond the time spent simply standing in line for the voting booth. I have witnessed arguments from both sides that end in floods of comment wars across every social media platform possible. Opinions on race, the pandemic, and presidential candidates seem to have Americans shouting over one another both literally and with the Caps-Lock on. The lines between political opinion, morality, and personhood continue to fade in a sea of voices that are desperate for their camp to overthrow the other in the end.

            However, what is most disheartening of all is that Christians have, with little inhibition, jumped directly into the fray, treating each other with the same level of contempt as is seen outside the church. The frustration that I hear from Christians with differing political views, and the ways in which they dehumanize their own brothers and sisters in Christ over a particular political stance is indicative of the current state of the western church. We must consider how partisan identity ought to interact with our identity as believers. As it stands now, self-professing people of faith are lining up on both sides of the divide, pushing forward their uncompromising ideals straight into one another.

2. The Place of Politics in the Church

 

            It’s no secret that the church and the state have been directly involved with one another at various points and to various degrees throughout history. It goes without saying that politics will always have a place in church as long as societies continue to govern themselves as they have since the beginning of time. However, the question that seems to be currently plaguing the church is where the line between faith and politics lies. Let’s take Mike Pence’s replacement of “Jesus” with “Old Glory” when quoting Hebrews 12:1-2 during his RNC address that has been making waves within Christian circles.[1] There has been a fair amount of fanfare, applause, as well as backlash for this clear misuse and paraphrase of the text. When we think about the context of Hebrews 12 and how it is addressing the importance of laying aside our earthly burdens of sin and placing our wearied eyes on Christ, it definitely raises questions regarding the flirtatious touch of nationalism that we hear in the Vice President’s speech. What is also disconcerting is how many Christians accept with alacrity this hijacking of the text. When we look at the cumulative work of the gospel narrative and how it openly invites the participation of all peoples and all nations, should we, as Believers, be so quick to affirm the unification of ideals that, though not inherently problematic, are not by any means synonymous with the biblical definition of the gospel? We seem to have forgotten about the offensive nature of the gospel when it is proclaimed to the culture. It takes no sides, and has no chosen political party where it rests in solidarity. Christ’s redeeming work on the cross shares spaces with neither conservative or liberal ideologies and sentiments, and no political party will ever perfectly encapsulate Christian textual values and apply them to policies. So when Christians on both sides flock to partisan camps to speak for them regarding what they believe about politics and faith, what results is an unequal yoke between the uncompromising work of Christ and mankind’s attempt to govern despite its fallen, sinful nature. We sit and argue with one another about which party’s ideologies are more aligned with Scripture, and we are far beyond missing the point. There is a reason why Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 10:22-24 that they will be hated by all for his name’s sake. Speaking and taking a stand for what Christ stood for will draw support and opposition from both sides, because the gospel and party lines are not mutually exclusive.

 

3. Partisan Identity

 

            According to a study by Pew Research Center, political polarity has only deepened since the previous election, and members of both parties now view each other with even more distaste than before.[2] Not only so, but the church has waded deep into partisan territory, making the distinction between the two parties all the more conflicted for those sitting in the pews. Partisan identity seems to overpower Christological identity, especially when it wins arguments. I have heard of those who have lost relationships with loved ones because of where they stand, those who have ended friendships because of what they believe, and those who have failed to even attempt to dialogue with those with whom they disagree. As time goes on, the beat of the partisan hammer drives a poignant wedge down the middle of the pew. With time, division within the church has only heightened, making it little more than a poor reflection of the rest of the nation as things currently stand.

            However, that isn’t to say that the church should not be involved in politics. Rather, the element of politics that is truly troubling is the proclevity of believers to draw primary identity from a particular political party. Does our faith hinge on Christ as we understand him through the text, or does it hinge on the ideologies found within American politics? Are we American citizens first, or are we Christ followers first? One thing is for certain, the continued intersectionality between the truth of the gospel and Democratic or Republican policy works only for those who are willing to compromise the truth of Scripture for the fallen state of earthly understanding. For us as believers to cling too tightly to any political camp is to risk elevating our own extrabiblical ideas and philosophies above the inerrant, spoken Word of God. Dr. L. Roger Owens of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary put it best, saying, “Christian partisans mistakenly believe that the mercy, peace, and justice—the shalom—of God’s Kingdom can be captured by the narrow agenda of a political party. And when this happens, as it often has, the results can be disastrous, especially for the church as it loses the integrity of its prophetic witness.”[3]

 

4. A Point of Afterthought: Where will We Land?

 

            As more and more upheaval arises within the faith community, people are starting to wonder who the church really is. When they hear politicians, both Democrat and Republican, who claim Christianity and yet fail to form policies that reflect such values, what are they to assume is true about so-called followers of Christ? The emergence of political identity in the church has reduced the tightrope we’ve been trying to walk to nothing but a mere wire, and we’ve finally toppled under the weight of our false sense of balance. While it’s no secret that the church in the United States has reached a point of free-fall, the question we now have to consider is where we are going to land? Will we take our partisan loyalties to our graves, or will we choose to let the gospel inform our understanding of public policy? Will we allow the culture and mankind’s wisdom to be the basis by which we interpret the Word and walk in faith? Or will we allow our understanding of faith to inform how we engage with those who have yet to believe? When we start to lose sight of Christ and look only to the things transpiring around us for a sense of security or reassurance, we stand to lose the meaning and purpose behind our witness as the Body of Christ altogether. So what choice is there to make? What needs to change?

            It is time that we consider the implications of bearing our partisan ideologies on our testimony as Christians. Are there parts of our political leanings that we hold too closely that mean little in the grander narrative of the gospel? What might we need to divorce from our political agenda that fails to carry with it a position informed by Scripture? Not only so, but rather than diving headfirst into fruitless arguing, should it not be our goal as brothers and sisters in Christ to approach these issues in unity? Might we consider what dialoguing with those of us who might think differently could do to bring about understanding and peace rather than more strife? Do we even know how to give an ear to those who may disagree with us and be able to discuss those differences? The reality is that this fundamental shift will not spark some sort of revival, revolution, or any sort of mass change. Although dramatic turns in culture and conduct have been the mantra and motivation of religious political engagement in the past, the reason for looking to inform our politics through the gospel and moving to dialogue and discuss rather than divide and dissent stems from the fact that Christ calls us to something greater than what human minds can accomplish through the work of political parties and policies. He calls us to seek and save the lost, care for widows and orphans, protect the weak, and to uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Politics are a great tool by which we can seek to push for changes that in turn push forth the cause of Christ, but the minute that we set foot in any camp that does not have Christ as the ultimate foundation, we as the church risk tipping the scale in favor of living for ourselves rather than dying to ourselves.

________________________

Footnotes:

            [1] Relevant Staff, “Vice President Mike Pence Swapped Out ‘Jesus’ for ‘Old Glory’ In His RNC Address.” RELEVANT (Aug. 27, 2020, Online) Accessed September 29, 2020: https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/vice-president-mike-pence-swapped-out-jesus-for-old-glory-in-his-rnc-address/.

            [2] “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal.” U.S. Politics & Policy. Pew Research Center, (Oct. 10, 2019, Washington, DC: Online). Accessed August 17, 2020: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/partisan-antipathy-more-intense-more-personal/.

            [3] Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens, "THE CHURCH—POLITICAL, YES. PARTISAN, NO." Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (May 26, 2016, Online). Accessed Sep. 30, 2020: https://www.pts.edu/blog/church-political-partisan/.

 

Further Reading: James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

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