For more than a month after the 2000 election it was unclear who would be the new President of the United States. I was 14 at the time, and the political drama was fascinating to me. The nation’s future hung in the balance just like those hanging chads on the Florida ballots. Ever since that year, I have cared a lot about politics.
During the four years I lived in Washington DC, I enjoyed being near my nation’s political center. Today, as a seminary student in the Midwest, I still enjoy thinking about politics. There are fewer political nerds to talk with here in Illinois, but on election nights I host parties and watch the returns roll in.
I have often heard the rule of social etiquette which says; in polite company one should avoid discussing religion or politics. If I were to follow this rule, I wouldn’t be able to talk about the things I care about most. So I speak, and I do with the conviction Christians should think and speak well about political issues.
But not all talk about politics is helpful. These days it seems like political conversations among Christians produce more heat than light. As a minister, it saddens me to see friendships destroyed and small groups divided during election seasons. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be. Political turmoil provides the Christian with a unique opportunity to declare God’s unchanging truth in a confusing time. I still have a lot to learn when comes to speaking about politics well, but when I do speak out, I try to remember four truths.
I Don’t Need To Express An Opinion About Everything
If there is one Biblical principle we most need in our political conversations today, it is found in James 1:19; “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). But our news cycle is anything but slow. Reports come at us so quickly we barely have time to comprehend them, let alone communicate a thoughtful response. Opinions generated in an instant are more likely to be driven by fear and anger instead of truth and wisdom. Yet this is exactly the type of opinions we are trained to offer. Social media pushes us to respond immediately to events we don’t yet understand, and those who speak most quickly are affirmed most strongly.
In the book of Proverbs, silence is associated with wisdom. Often the most responsible thing a Christian can do is to say nothing. Yes, there are times to speak publicly against evil, but every event does not require an immediate response. We need to resist the frantic demands of the outrage cycle. For many of us, speaking rightly about politics will mean speaking less – and speaking more slowly when we do speak.
My Political Speech Impacts My Public Witness
Back in community college I would often engage in political disputes with my classmates. While many people avoid such encounters, the verbal jousting was energizing for me. I didn’t understand healthcare policy, but I sure liked arguing about it. But then God convicted me. He convicted me that I was much more willing to discuss my political positions with non-Christians than I was to talk about Jesus with them. I am embarrassed to admit that more of my classmates probably knew me as a conservative than a Christian. I still have political conversations with non-Christians, but I would rather speak with someone about my spiritual identity than my political persuasion.
And the truth is, political speech can destroy opportunities to declare the Gospel. When I vent about politics, I can needlessly offend my neighbor who needs to know Jesus. Our political reputation can hinder our spiritual proclamation. And today we can offend others on social media before we even meet them. In 2005 while speaking about anger on the political right, D. A. Carson said; “When you’re busy hating everybody and denouncing everybody and seeking political solutions to everything it’s very difficult to evangelize, isn’t it?” Anger obviously isn’t confined to any political party, but Carson is right; treating others like political enemies isn’t likely to make them want to be my Christian brother or sister.
Christianity Is Central To My Identity
In our increasingly polarized political climate, party loyalty is a commanding force. Principle nearly always bows to party, and beliefs bend depending on who is in power. We explain away significant faults in our favored politicians, while magnifying the smallest fault we discover in our opponents. We are all hypocrites when it comes to politics. But for Christians, this must be different. We must be able to affirm good and condemn evil wherever it exists. Someone who thinks about politics as a Christian will critique their political brothers and affirm their political others. When we dislike a politician, it is difficult to offer them praise when they do something right, but Christians must be able to do this.
Maturing Christians will increasingly find areas where their political associations are at odds with their spiritual convictions. We must resist the blindness brought by party loyalty, and we must stop overlooking sin in our political camp. When we excuse evil, we do damage to our souls. And when Christians practice this type of hypocrisy they disparage the church in the eyes of the world. We must be led by our Christian convictions, not by the ever shifting signals sent by our political tribe.
When commenting on Romans 13, one New Testament scholar describes the Apostle Paul in this way: “his political sensibilities were driven by his theological ones, not vice versa.” May this be true of every Christian. No party, and only one Person, is worthy of our political loyalty.
An Otherworldly Hope
The Religious Right has been appropriately criticized for its errors. Some in my generation, the children of religious conservatives, have seen these errors and responded by embracing political liberalism. But in doing so, many of us are reenacting our parent’s problems in a different place. We have traded one form of blindness for another. Our political affiliations may have changed but our posture toward the world hasn’t. We still act like mankind’s deepest problems have political solutions. We still try to use government to bring in the Kingdom of God – it’s just that our vision of the Kingdom has changed. In many cases, our shift has been more of a reaction to the wrongs of a previous generation than a move toward political humility.
But Christians must do better than simply switching labels or changing tribes. We must reject the premise that salvation can be obtained politically. Otherwise we are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
This semester I have been reading through Augustine’s City of God, a text which was written during a time of national decline. Augustine writes to a people who wondered why Christianity hadn’t improved Rome’s political fortunes. They feared that God had abandoned them. Augustine’s answer was not to minimize the pain of his audience, but to contextualize it. He reminds his Roman readers that they belong to a different kind of kingdom, that their allegiance is to a different type of city. They could hope for a future beyond the fall of Rome because they were longing for “…a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” – Heb 11:16 (ESV). God’s ultimate blessing to his people is not earthly peace and security, but eternal peace and security.
For the secularist, political loss is utterly devastating because, for them, this city is all that exists. But the Christian has a higher hope. We should work to be a more just society. We should seek to overcome discrimination and division. Progress can be made. But no city we build can be the refuge we want it to be. No party we construct will fix our country’s deepest problems. Remembering this keeps us politically humble. Recalling this gives us hope in the midst of lost elections and government collapses. Only when Christians remember they belong to another city will they be able to speak about politics as they should.