There’s a conversation that I keep hearing about over and over again. I’ve heard one side from my friends and fellow millennials. I’ve heard the other side from parents and grandparents who’ve engaged me for my thoughts. The conversation is about the divide that is emerging, especially among evangelical families, over politics.
Honestly, I’ve heard others recount some version of this conversation more times than I can remember. (And apparently I’m not alone. See the reader question here.) Each time, it is always marked by frustration and typically lament. Most of the young Christians I know take no pleasure in fighting with their parents or grandparents about politics. Likewise, in my experience, most of the men and women in the generations above my own also regret the relational cost that these conflicts often bear.
Principles vs. practice
This issue is difficult and increasingly common. And there are no easy answers. By that I do not mean that there isn’t any hope. What I mean is that neither the Scriptures, nor the Christian tradition, offer specific instructions to us in this area. Politics is often a prudential exercise. Yes, there are bedrock principles that we can lift directly from the pages of our Bibles to inform our political perspectives. But the truth is that even these points of clarity do not carry us all the way from the level of principle all the way to application.
Let me illustrate the point. Probably the clearest “political” question of our day that is directly addressed in Scripture is abortion. The Bible is astoundingly clear about the sanctity of human life, about the dignity of personhood, and that life begins in the womb (Psalm 22:10, 139:13-16, Jer. 1:5). And because this is so clear, few of the evangelicals that I know, regardless of their generation, are tempted to equivocate on the issue. Christians who hold fast to the Scriptures will consistently oppose abortion. But even this very clear issue, raises further questions about which Christians are divided.
Some argue that the only policies a Christian should support concerning abortion are those that would bring about the total abolition of the practice. Others, who are equally opposed to abortion, argue that Christians are free to support any policy that would reduce the number of abortions being performed, even if such a policy represents only an incremental reduction. And there are further questions beyond these. For instance, whether legislation to curtail abortion should also increase public funding to help single mothers or families in financial distress.
This is only one example of how Christians can find themselves at odds over the implications of a belief they hold in common. And in this case the underlying principle is exceedingly clear. So you can easily imagine what happens when the connections between policies and biblical principles are even less direct: Are Christians bound to vote for this candidate? Are Christians sinning if they vote for that candidate? Should Christians even belong to a political party?
Understanding political decisions
Such questions lead me back to the ongoing conflicts between Christians of different generations. I won’t pretend to know the whole cause for this. But I am confident that at least part of the reason lies in the fact that political decisions are made on the basis of multiple factors including knowledge, wisdom, and experience.
Thinking through the factors that shape our political decisions can help us show more grace and understanding when fellow believers come to different conclusions than our own. In terms of knowledge, when these disagreements show up among evangelicals, it is usually not because we are appealing to different sources of authority. Across these generations, we use the same Bible. We read the same passages. And as I mentioned, Christians of all ages are generally agreed at the level of principle when it comes to recognizing significant moral and political implications within the Scriptures.
Thinking through the factors that shape our political decisions can help us show more grace and understanding when fellow believers come to different conclusions than our own.
This is where wisdom comes in. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. My favorite definition defines wisdom as “the proper application of knowledge.” And I think this is crucial for understanding these generational clashes when it comes to politics. Seeking to correctly apply knowledge is not just a matter of processing certain information; it is also a matter of experience. As we deliberate important issues and make consequential decisions, our knowledge is combined with our experience to help us choose the best path forward.
One fairly common thread in the many contentious conversations that have been relayed to me sounds something like this: “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen!” That’s actually more important than it first appears. All of us are shaped by our experiences. And because that’s true, it isn’t really surprising that some of these conflicts emerge along generational lines. To some degree, it makes sense that people who lived in the same culture through the same events would share similar assumptions or perspectives. It’s also not surprising that people who did not share such experiences may not share the same perspectives as those who did.
Reducing the tension
For Christians who have experienced these issues, here are several practices to consider that may help these conversations generate more light and less heat.
First, remember that politics should not disrupt Christian unity. Politics are deeply important. Political outcomes affect real peoples lives—our health, freedom, safety, even our ability to worship and practice our faith. But allowing politics, which is always a penultimate exercise, to create discord among believers is almost always a mistake. I say almost always because it is never acceptable for a Christian to jettison or violate the clear teaching of Scripture to advance a political agenda, and such error may warrant correction. But assuming this isn’t the case, it is surely a mistake to allow prudential matters to damage our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Second, remember that political decisions are rarely linear. Though it is often portrayed otherwise, addressing political issues as a Christian is more complicated than simply holding a ballot in one hand and a Bible in the other. Let me say clearly: when it comes to politics, the Scriptures are the very best tool we have at our disposal. But it’s important to acknowledge that each of us brings all kinds of assumptions and background knowledge with us when we approach any political issue. Assuming that all of the positions we hold, the party we belong to, and the exact candidates we support are the only legitimate (or biblical) options for Christians not only sets an impossibly high standard, but sets ourselves up as judges over the consciences of our fellow believers. And as pastor-theologian Kevin DeYoung reminds us, we must exercise great caution in attaching God’s name to our political pronouncements, lest we violate the third commandment.
Third, should political issues become contentious between younger Christians and their parents (or any older saints), I would encourage younger Christians to do their best to show deference and respect to their elders. Conflict between parents and their children is nothing new. After all, God addressed the issue in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:12). Age does not yield in infallibility. But younger Christians should seek to honor older saints, weighing their words carefully and assuming that their experience often brings benefits and insight. And perhaps both sides should have the humility to recognize that their own position could be in error, as well as the confidence to believe that the same Holy Spirit is actively guiding them both parties.
Finally, I would encourage any Christian to reevaluate the goal of these kinds of conversations. There is nothing wrong with political zeal. But I can only assume that less of these conversations would devolve into diatribes or shouting matches if Christians entered them seeking to learn instead of win. Browbeating another believer into submission may be cathartic, but is hardly praiseworthy. Rather than avoiding political issues entirely, Christians should engage one another with charity, seeking to learn and persuade instead of coerce or destroy.
MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images / Contributor