fbpx
Articles

4 things Christians can do in a divisive political time

/
July 30, 2020

This past weekend we crossed the 100-day threshold. For those who don’t follow politics closely, that means there are now fewer than 100 days before the November 2020 election. Obviously, the months and weeks ahead of any election, especially in a presidential election year, are an important time. We shouldn’t take it for granted that we live in a nation where citizens are able to help determine the trajectory of our country and how its people are governed. But one thing that an imminent election also means is that the heat and drama of politics will further intensify in the days ahead. And as we enter into the most intense part of the political cycle, Christians should think carefully about what it looks like to conduct ourselves in ways that honor Jesus.

The Scriptures call the people of God to be good citizens (1 Pet. 2:13-17). In the United States, one of the clearest responsibilities of citizenship is participating in the political process through which we elect our nation’s leaders. For some Christians, that simply means that on or ahead of election day, they will make their way to a polling place to punch a ballot. For others, participating in the political process is more involved. That might include certain forms of advocacy, volunteering, or even running for office themselves. Either way, the Bible isn’t specific about how much being a good citizen requires of Christians as far as politics is concerned. But even so, the Scriptures do have much to say about the way Christians engage in the political process.

Troubling data

Before laying out a few things Christians should keep in mind this election season, it is worth briefly considering some data from a recent national survey conducted by the Cato Institute. It is not a secret that our society has become increasingly politically polarized and tribal. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the sad realities about our politically charged time is that the loudest voices are usually those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. And predictably, this has resulted in a silencing of more reasonable voices. 

In their survey, Cato found that 62% of Americans “say the political climate these days prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” And this isn’t a problem for only one side. As the report details, “Majorities of Democrats (52%), Independents (59%) and Republicans (77%) all agree they have political opinions they are afraid to share.” 

But more than silencing certain voices, a shocking number of people now believe that a person’s political views are grounds for certain forms of retribution. The Cato survey concluded that 22% of Americans “would support firing a business executive who personally donates to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign.” On the other hand, 31% would “support firing a business executive who donates to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.”

Four ways for Christians to engage

The findings of the Cato survey are deeply troubling. And as we enter the throes of election season, this is an opportunity for Christians to show the world a better way to think about politics. To that end, here are four things Christians can do as the election approaches.

1. Keep things in perspective

One of the reasons political discourse is often so toxic is because we regularly overestimate the stakes. Every election is important, but most people are rightly exhausted by the quadrennial proclamations about the “most important election of our lifetimes.” More than that though, our political engagement needs to reflect the confidence we have in Jesus. There is nothing wrong with Christians supporting a candidate or party. There is nothing wrong with having a preferred outcome for November’s election or working toward that end. But for Christians there is something greater at stake than the outcome on Election Day, and that’s our public witness. 

As believers, in everything we do we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). And as we engage in the political process, we want everything we do to reflect Jesus. That means, for example, we refuse to engage in fear-mongering and mockery. And it also means we refuse to compromise on our convictions for the sake of political expediency. A lot of things shape a person’s view of politics. But every Christian should look to the Scriptures and listen to their conscience to guide them at every step. Whatever November’s elections might mean, there is no outcome that can change the fact that Jesus is still on his throne (Heb. 12:2). Our political engagement should reflect our confidence in his sovereign rule over the universe.

2. Recognize people’s dignity

The United States is a large and diverse country. Our nation is filled with millions of people with different backgrounds and experiences and political views. You don’t have to believe that all political views are equally valid in order to show respect to the people who hold them. In fact, persuasion is one of the best things about the political process; people take their ideas into the public square and attempt to convince others to adopt their view or support their candidate. But as the Cato survey revealed, so often political discourse devolves from attempts to persuade into opportunities to mock, insult, and ridicule.

Whatever November’s elections might mean, there is no outcome that can change the fact that Jesus is still on his throne (Heb. 12:2). Our political engagement should reflect our confidence in his sovereign rule over the universe.

Christians should always resist this temptation. As followers of Jesus, we recognize that every person is made in the image God (Gen. 1:27). And because they bear God’s image, every person is worthy of dignity and respect. So it’s always important for Christians to remember that if it has flesh and blood, it’s not our enemy (Eph. 6:12). Yes, we may have ideological opponents. There will be those we have the strongest of disagreements with. But our fellow citizens are not our enemies. And even in the midst of a heated campaign cycle, we must treat other people with the kind of love and respect that points them toward Jesus. 

3. Have some humility

Sometimes it is tempting to believe that if other people would just read their Bibles or use their brains they would see political issues the same way we do. But the truth is, politics is an incredibly complex enterprise, and arriving at particular political solutions is rarely such a linear process. Still, there are some political questions that Christians should not debate. Abortion is probably the most obvious example in our own day. It should be uncontroversial to say that Christians should oppose abortion. The Bible not only teaches us that all life is sacred, but also clearly teaches that life begins in the womb (Ps. 139:13-16). But even with an issue like abortion, where we can draw a straight line from the teaching of Scripture to the position that Christians should hold, there are still more questions to answer. Some Christians feel strongly that they cannot support any kind of incremental effort to eliminate abortion. These Christians feel abortion is so heinous that they are unable to support anything less than a total ban on the procedure. Other Christians, however, will support almost any measure that would reduce the number of children dying from abortions. Which of these is the better or more biblical approach is obviously more complicated.

Beyond this question, the reality is that with most political questions it is much more difficult to draw such a straight line. On many issues, Christians may give serious thought, searching the Scriptures for insight, and still come to different conclusions about the best policy solution or path forward. This is no sign that our Bibles are deficient. Nor is our lack of agreement necessarily sinful or based on a faulty reasoning. The truth is politics is often more complicated than whether something is right or wrong. And more things influence our opinions than we sometimes believe. One of the best things that believers can do is recognize their own fallibility. When other Christians hold political views you disagree with, have enough humility to believe that they might have good reasons for doing so.

4. Be passionate, not belligerent

None of this is meant to strip away anyone’s zeal. Our nation is best served when its citizens are passionate about the political process, especially by passionate followers of Christ. Moreover, the issues at stake in this and every election are important and sometimes critically so. The leaders we elect and the policies they implement will have a meaningful effect upon real people’s lives. So in a sense, caring about politics is caring about people. But all of us know that politics can be a nasty business. Sadly, people are usually more motivated by anger or fear than an optimistic vision of the future. This is why we see so many more ads attacking politicians than ads extolling their virtues. 

Even so, before we are citizens of the United States, Christians are citizens of another kingdom that is not of this world (Phil. 3:20). If we are trusting in Jesus and our ultimate allegiance belongs to him, we are called to serve and honor him in everything that we do. And this includes the way we engage politically. There is nothing wrong with passion, but passion is no excuse for subterfuge or malevolence. Sinful behavior is just as wicked when the goal is to win an election. Jesus didn’t browbeat anyone into heaven. And lambasting one’s ideological opponents is no way for Christians to conduct themselves either. Whether you are campaigning door to door, speaking at a political event, or posting on Facebook, remember that you are representing Jesus. Be passionate, but not belligerent. Let your words and actions honor him. 

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author