Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Call of the Hour: A True Christian Approach to Politics
April 29, 2011
Ted Williams III
This week I found myself involved in a spirited Facebook debate on the impact of the Obama presidency. This debate, held among members of my church community, was filled with such acrimony that it became obvious why many churches avoid politics like the plague. There were well-defined camps of both liberals and conservatives, and neither seemed willing to acquiesce an inch to the other side. I forgot for a moment I was witnessing a debate among people with the same Lord and faith. What became evident through this debate was that the Christian community desperately needs biblical direction and healthy platforms for conversation and engagement around the intersection of faith and politics.
The challenge surrounding Christian civic involvement is clear. America’s two major political parties frame our debates in ways that falsely demonize and isolate those with different opinions. This is often done in an effort to create electoral distinctions among two groups which, practically, are very similar. Unfortunately the Christian community, lacking a true alternative, finds itself forced to take sides in overly simplified, partisan ideological battles. Those that choose to avoid this partisanship often decide to forgo the process altogether. As a result, the church and the nation are left without thoughtful discourse about the vital role religion should play in a democratic society.
Americans are still a very religious group. According Univeristy of Michigan study, 44% of Americans attend church regularly, compared with 27 percent of the British, 21 percent of the French, and 3 percent of the Japanese. Moreover, 53 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 16 percent, and 14 percent, respectively, of the British and French. Yet because studies have also shown that most church-going Americans arrive at political positions primarily consistent with their socioeconomic status, ethnic affiliation, gender, and geographic location, there exists a huge disconnect. What we believe and profess on Sunday morning is often separate from how we engage in the political process and culture on Monday.
The major cause is that modern Americans often adhere to the unbiblical principle of dualism, which essentially separates the religious and the secular. Craig Gay summarizes this dilemma in The Way of the Modern World (1998) by saying “the most insidious temptations to ‘worldliness’ today do not necessarily come in the form of enticements to sexual dissipations, or even to complicity in socio-political oppression, but rather in the form of the suggestion that it is possible—and indeed “normal” and expedient—to go about our daily business in the world without giving much thought to God.”
Before adopting an ideological position, every Christian must ask himself, what is God’s will for the government? What direction does biblical text provide for the major policy questions of the day? In this way, we avoid the false choices of conservatives who are fanatically committed to small government as an ideology and of liberals who are equally as fanatical about the ability of the state to create heaven on earth. Somewhere in the middle is a true Christian perspective, one that recognizes both God’s ultimate sovereignty and the proper role of the state in a just society. What may be shocking to both sides is that the God of the Judeo-Christian bible is in many ways both a liberal and a conservative.
In my own intellectual journey, this kind of biblical examination has caused me to re-evaluate my stance on a variety of issues. For contemporary dilemmas like the size of the federal debt, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and our involvement in the war on terror, the Christian faith provides much needed guidelines and principles from which we can develop serious public policy. Beyond the proof-texting and sound bites of current religion and politics conversations is a place in which Christians can serve an important democratic function. It is imperative for both us and the greater society that we boldly engage the electoral and political process in the myriad ways that are available.
There is a saying that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. Yet in the realm of reflective impoliteness lies an opportunity to develop solutions to our major conundrums. We must take it.
—Ted Williams teaches Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago and is an alumnus of the Center for Public Justice Civitas program.
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