By / Apr 18

On this episode of the ERLC Podcast in the Christians and Politics series, we’re talking about the importance of your involvement in local and state politics.

2024 is a big year for politics. If you ask any person you pass on the street why this is the case, their answer would likely be because of the presidential election; one that, sadly, looks like it will be a contentious repeat of 2020. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Federal politics are important. 

But, most Americans don’t give much thought to political issues beyond the national level. This causes us to miss out on the good we can affect at the state and local levels through political engagement. While it might not be as glamorous, popular, or as exciting as a national election, getting involved in the states, cities, and communities in which we live is more important than we might think. 

On today’s episode you’ll hear from Tony Beam, who is the senior director of Church & Community Engagement for North Greenville University in South Carolina. He represents South Carolina Baptists at the Statehouse in Columbia as director of the Office of Public Policy. Dr. Beam is also the host of the podcast, “Truth in Politics and Culture with Dr. Tony Beam.” 

You will also hear from Lane Wakefield who is a clinical assistant professor of Marketing at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University. He’s also a candidate for the school board in his community. 

By / Apr 4

Healthy engagement in the public square can feel like a fond memory of past decades, but we believe that Christians can still engage the public square today in ways that bring hope where it is desperately needed.

On the ERLC Podcast, our goal is to help you think biblically about today’s cultural issues. Today, we’re starting a new series on Christian political engagement.

Do you sense that American politics is in trouble? Are you frustrated by our inability, even as Christians, to dialogue and disagree across party lines and other differences? In 2019, the ERLC, the Fetzer Institute, and LifeWay Research conducted a study on civility in the public square. The study found that “the single most common adjective” evangelical leaders used to describe the current political discourse was “toxic.” Sadly, not much has changed over the last several years. 

At the ERLC, we feel the same tensions you feel. On the one hand, it’d be easy to throw up our hands and be done with politics altogether. On the other, we can be tempted to conform to the patterns of the world and adopt the same defensive posture in politics we see on social media and in the news. But, we, as Christians, believe there’s a better way and that Scripture guides us in our political engagement—maybe not in the specifics of voting on a certain policy, but certainly, in our speech, how we treat others, and the things we care about. 

Together, we want to be Southern Baptists who engage in politics and bring hope to the public square. On today’s episode, you’ll learn what this means from Brent Leatherwood, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He has extensive experience working in our nation’s capital and in Tennessee politics. He and his wife are committed members of their local church and have three children. 

By / Nov 7

The 2022 midterms elections are tomorrow, and in the last days and weeks, Americans have increasingly turned their focus to politics. Voter turnout for the last midterm election in 2018 was 49% of the eligible population, the highest for a midterm election in 100 years, according to Pew Research. Some election officials are predicting that this year’s numbers will be equally high. 

Elections are an important avenue for Americans to register their opinions about the direction of the nation and their local communities. How should Christians think about elections and how should we engage this moment? I’d like to provide three answers to equip and inform believers as they make their way to the ballot bot.  

Be informed, not ignorant

I know, we are all busy. Our lives are consumed by family responsibilities, professional requirements, and our preoccupation with social media. I’ll admit, adding “candidate research” on top of that doesn’t sound appealing. But the reality is, our vote is important, and we should want to know who we are voting for and exactly why that candidate deserves to receive our vote.

Samuel Adams put it like this in 1781, “Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual – or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society.” So how does one get informed to be able to approach Election Day as a “solemn trust”?

Being informed means getting inquisitive. But how? I’d suggest your local newspaper, first and foremost. The reporting there is likely based on the issues affecting people in your area. Second, a great site to visit for some unbiased analysis is the Cook Political Report. Finally, if you’re looking for something that really dives into the history of states and districts, the go-to resource for journalists is The Almanac of American Politics.

All of these resources, and others like them, can help you research positions and policies, give you handles for examining a candidate’s record (especially if they have a history in public service), and, ultimately, help you determine whether the individual exhibits enough of an alignment with your principles to merit your vote. 

As we do this, we should realize that not every determination we make is going to be an easy call. There are going to be some political races where there isn’t a clear indication as to who deserves our support. That can be frustrating, especially operating in a culture that wants clear, binary choices. But that isn’t the world in which we reside. While it can be tempting to withdraw entirely from the political space, we aren’t called to that. Instead, we must wisely process the information we collect and move forward.

Be discerning about politics, not dogmatic

As we are doing our research and gleaning the necessary information to make an informed choice, we should be on guard against false reports and misleading details, particularly from entities that are spreading them on purpose.

We all are tempted to read sources or believe social media posts that only serve to reaffirm our political beliefs. That’s the type of behavior that political advertisers and Twitter bots feast upon. As such, we are merely turned into the talking heads that we see on cable news, parroting the talking points we’ve just been fed. We should resist this.

I would suggest, instead of being discipled by our favored media outlets, we take it upon ourselves to collect information from a number of different sources. Do you watch MSNBC all the time? Ok, pick up The Wall Street Journal, too. Do you follow all the writers at The Federalist on social media? Take the time to peruse what the folks at The Atlantic are writing about, as well. Do you listen to Fox News Radio on your drive in the afternoon? Occasionally flip on PBS Newshour once you get home from that drive. And vice versa.

All the outlets I just listed tend to focus on national issues. I would submit that local matters and candidates for offices closer to home are just as, if not more, important for your life than nearly everything that comes out of Washington, D.C. So pick up the local newspaper, scan what reporters across your home state are covering, and try to listen to some locally-produced programs and podcasts. There are a number of critical issues in our communities that deserve our attention, but they are flying under the radar because all of us are devoting far too much attention to the latest procedural vote on Capitol Hill.

Let’s commit ourselves to being good stewards of information by keeping a discerning eye on what we come across. From there, we can be helpful voices as we actually engage with our neighbors.

Dialogue without dehumanizing

After we have taken the time to research the candidates for federal and local office and any ballot measures, what should we do with the information? In other words, if we’re given the opportunity, how do we helpfully engage people around us?

Unfortunately, there’s too few who are leading well in this regard right now, especially online. Instead, there are numerous examples where individuals are trying to rhetorically “own” their opponents and demean any hint of opposing viewpoints. While that may be appealing in our current cultural moment, that’s not how a Christian should view his or her interactions with others. Ephesians 4:29 reminds us that we’re called to a higher standard: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Seek to persuade, not pulverize. All around us, whether on the political left or right, activists are trying to drive their opponents out of the public square. Online mobs attack their partisan adversaries. Political leaders completely dismiss their rivals. In lieu of mimicking that behavior, I would hope my words about current political issues bring a greater sense of clarity and perspective. Does that mean there won’t be disagreement? Of course not. Well-meaning people can disagree without seeking to dehumanize one another. That is the type of heart we should display in both our personal interactions and our public pronouncements.

Here’s the added benefit: This type of healthy engagement on the personal level helps strengthen the public square. Much like the streams that form the headwaters of rivers, our conversations with friends, colleagues, fellow church-goers, and social acquaintances knit stronger social bonds in our communities. It helps build up what former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “free trade in ideas.”

Moreover, there are some scriptural underpinnings to this too. Though in a different context, the call to “come and let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18) stands out as well as what Paul tells us in Romans, “live at peace with everyone” (12:12). These are helpful reminders and framings for the posture we should take as believers. By inviting someone to sit down and talk through an issue (with the hope of finding common ground), you are respecting their status as one made in God’s image and, in our current context, reaffirming the notion that our American experiment is a shared project that’s better undertaken together than apart.

Overall, we must keep perspective. All that is mentioned above is advice for this particular season. Yes, we should stay abreast of the political developments of the day, but we cannot let it consume our lives. Politics and the policy decisions being made by our leaders are important in our society, but they are not eternal. The things of God are (2 Cor. 4:18). We must be mindful of that as we engage in this space. Doing so will ensure we remain informed and charitable toward those who are casting ballots alongside us.

By / Nov 1

“I don’t think the average Christian is nearly political enough.”

For Christians paying any attention to political developments in the United States, these words may seem ill-conceived at best, or just plain crazy. Just think, in 21st-century America, the term “evangelical” has been so co-opted by politics that it describes a demographic increasingly viewed as a voting bloc more than a religious community. We might better wonder if we’ve gotten too political. But for Patrick Schreiner, associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book Political Gospel: Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World, these words aren’t crazy at all, nor are they ill-conceived. They’re tethered to the main argument of his book, that “Christianity is political“—a reality, it seems, we’ve come to collectively overlook.

Rather than viewing Christianity and politics as two wholly different spheres that sour when mixed, Schreiner argues that “[Christianity] and politics are . . . completely and wholly overlapping.” And because they’re so intertwined, Christian discipleship would do well to “not separate what God has joined together,” so to speak (Matt. 19:6). But, lest we misunderstand Schreiner’s aim, Political Gospel “is not an argument for one party over another,” nor is it “a manual for policies,” nor even “an argument for a third way;” instead the book “offers a framework” that leaves readers “recognizing Christianity is quite political, but maybe not in the way [they] think.” 

Christianity is political

“It has become a truism,” Schreiner writes, “to state that Jesus didn’t come with a political message. As the common trope goes, though Israel expected a warrior-king to come riding on a white horse to overthrow Rome, he came with a spiritual message about their hearts. Jesus simply wants a relationship with you.” 

Have you ever heard someone make this statement? Have you ever made it yourself? 

“The problem is,” he continues, “this is a half-truth. Jesus made a political announcement. He declared himself to be King. We have one ruler to whom we are loyal . . . he is the King of kings.” With this, Schreiner drives the stake of his argument firmly into the ground—”Christianity is political.” In fact, he argues that “the whole biblical storyline,” and “all the vocabulary of salvation,” even, “can be put under the banner of politics.” He goes on: “The substance of Christian hope at its foundation is political. Thus, Jesus was not merely urging a revolution in personal values. He was not aloof to political concerns; it was the very purpose of his coming.”

Politics defined

Over the years, our working definition of politics has become skewed and is now assumed to mean something more akin to partisanship. And partisanship, “the wheeling and dealing along party lines” or the “endorsement of candidates by pastors” is not what Schreiner argues for. He’s also not advocating for “the merging of church and state.” Instead, he means “politics in terms of public life, the ordering of society, enacting justice, and the arranging of common goods.” And because “God is sovereign over the whole world,” not just “the inner reaches of the human heart,” the gospel has significant political implications. 

Politics in its proper place

But Schreiner is “not merely suggesting Christianity has political implications.” He argues that “Christianity is itself a politic. It is an all-encompassing vision of the world and human life…meant to be enacted in the church, showcased to our neighbors, and spread to the world.” If that’s the case, then Schreiner is right: Christians should indeed be more political. But to what degree, and in what way?

In Political Gospel, the charge is for readers to put politics in its proper place, which requires that we “recover the true political nature of our message” and reassert our allegiance to the “King of kings,” letting his vision of the world and its proper ordering shape our public and private lives. And while we are called to be more political not less, the model of Christian political engagement put forth by the New Testament, as Schreiner argues, is surprisingly paradoxical. 

The paradox

The way in which we understand Jesus’ message to be political and the way we apply and enact his message in our current political environment consists of a series of paradoxes, as it did for Jesus and the first-century church. We are to embody what Schreiner calls “the way of the kingdom” and “the way of the dove;” “the way of subversion” and “the way of submission;” “the way of the lion” and “the way of the lamb.” It is these tensions—these paradoxes—that are to mark our thinking and our ethic as “political disciples” of the King of kings.

Way of the kingdom, way of the dove

“When Jesus stepped onto the scene, his first words were fully political: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). Gospel. Kingdom. Believe. All of these are politically loaded terms.” With these words, Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was officially breaking into the Roman world of his day and, therefore, rivaling its political order. And he went further, calling people “to enter this new polis (city)” by transferring their allegiance, and enacting the kingdom’s dominance, for example, by disarming one of Rome’s “mascots” (the exorcism of legion, Mark 5:1–20). In his life, Jesus “proclaimed, presented, and performed a new public, social, and political reality”—he “was the bearer of a new political regime.” And he was crucified for it.

But, though “Jesus proclaimed the way of the kingdom he “enacted it as the way of the dove.” He was not “an anarchist, revolutionary, or social reformer.” And he didn’t bring the kingdom by way of “the sword.” Instead, the political ethics of Jesus were marked by persuasion, servanthood, mercy, peacemaking, meekness, love, and submission. They are what Schreiner calls “the ethics of the dove.”

Way of subversion, way of submission

In observing the life and ministry of Paul, we encounter the subversive nature of the gospel message—a message that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). As he traveled from city to city, Paul constantly had “political accusations” levied against him: he was accused of “subverting the Roman Empire,” “acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees,” and disturbing “the Pax Romana,” or peace of Rome. And why were these charges raised against him and his companions? Because Paul proclaimed the gospel of God’s in-breaking kingdom and established “political assemblies” (i.e., churches) all over the Roman Empire whose members pledged allegiance to a King not named Caesar. 

But like Jesus, “Paul proclaimed the way of subversion [yet] did so in the way of submission.” Paul is accused of being “an agitator, a plague, a leader of a rebellion, and someone who desecrated the temple,” but maintains that he is innocent of these charges. Rather than leading rebellions, Paul subverts the Roman Empire while submitting to it. 

Way of the lion, way of the lamb

In the book of Revelation, we read of Jesus as the King of kings, the one whose throne “stands above every earthly throne,” whose coming will mark the fall of every other empire. At his return, the “city of God” will finally supplant the “city of man” and “complete the redemption of the redeemed.” We will join him in the city whose “gates will never be shut” (Rev. 21:25). One day “The Lion will return and [conquer] all other kingdoms.” 

But what are we to do in the meantime? Should we try to hurry the kingdom by taking up the way of power? To conquer the city of man by legislating our King’s victory now? Schreiner says no, “We are called to conquer. But the way we conquer shocks us.” The way of the lion must be “embodied in the way of a slain lamb.” We are to conquer by being in Christ, by bearing witness to Christ, and by waiting on Christ faithfully. “In many ways, we are to continue in normal everyday Christian responsibilities looking forward to Christ’s return.”

Our public political witness

In Political Gospel, the charge is not for readers to make politics ultimate but to put politics in its proper place. Too often the church has chosen one of two ways—either partisanizing or privatizing our “politic”—that either overlook or refuse to see the political nature of our message, both of which reveal and result in “malformed political discipleship.” On the side of partisanism, our political discipleship “comes from talking heads on cable news” instead of from “reflections on the implications of our faith for public life.” Here, our partisan loyalties are prized over loyalty to Christ. On the other hand, we can also privatize our faith, refusing to see “how the gospel should shape our public habits [and] stances.” Here, we become “politically quietistic or innocuous,” with nothing to offer a society in dire need of our “political gospel.” Both approaches reveal a misplaced politic and a counterproductive or ineffective public witness.

But how we “behave” politically—how we “respond to the government,” how we interact on social media, how we speak of our elected officials, how we think—”is part of [our] witness.” And, currently, our public witness is floundering. The time is ripe for us to bring “our political lives in conformity with Christ.”

“The gospel is political, but it is political in a way no one expects.” And followers of the way are political, but should engage in politics in a way no one expects. But, like every generation, we face a political choice. “Will we follow the cross in our political engagement or our own ideas? Will we let fear drive our decisions, or trust God? Will we submit to his way, or carve out our own paths?” In Political Gospel, Patrick Schreiner helps readers answer these questions, offering a new paradigm from which to think. True to his aim, readers will leave convinced not only that “Christianity is quite political” but that Christians themselves are not “nearly political enough.”

By / Oct 26

I’ve been following politics almost as long as I’ve known how to read. My family didn’t have a television, so we got three newspapers every day. I loved scampering down to the end of our driveway every day and bringing them back to the house where I’d read the news. I was one of those nerds who read Time and Newsweek and U.S News and World Report in middle and high school and who subscribed to The National Review with my own money. 

Most people (thankfully) don’t follow politics as closely as I do and most people don’t treat every election night like it’s the Super Bowl. But all of us have an interest in who shapes our communities and our country. And increasingly, in an age of social media and nonstop cable news, politics is all around us every day. 

In our particularly polarized age, election days are often moments of great euphoria or times of tremendous despair for many, depending on whether or not a particular candidate or party was victorious. I’ve seen (and sometimes experienced) these scenarios many times in my life. In light of the upcoming midterm elections on Nov. 8, which determines who controls the U.S. House and Senate, it’s important to remind ourselves how we should think about politics as believers and how we can help other people work through whatever they may be feeling as the results set in. 

First, regardless of who wins, we should thank God for the privilege of living in a country where we have some say in who holds power. Our system of government is far from perfect. We’ve not fully lived up to the ideals in our founding documents. And in shameful times of our history, the choice to vote has not been held by everyone. But today, while politics can be frustrating and annoying and play to our worst instincts, we have an opportunity to have some small part in choosing who makes leadership decisions. There are many people around the world who don’t enjoy such freedoms, who have zero control over who rules over them, and who have little input on the laws they are required to obey. So, gratitude should be our first instinct after an election. 

Second, we should recognize that while politics is important, parties ultimately rise and fall. Movements come and go. Coalitions form and are broken up. I’m old enough to remember several moments when it seemed Democrats would hold power indefinitely. And then two years later, Republicans swept into office. And I’m old enough to remember moments when it seemed Republicans were permanently ascendant, only to suffer huge defeats in the next election cycle. We shouldn’t rise too high or sink too low with a single election. History shows us that in our durable democracy, voting patterns shift, events happen, and things don’t stay the same. 

Third, while I believe engagement in politics is an important exercise of Christian stewardship in our representative republic, politics is not everything. For someone like me who enjoys keeping abreast of political trends, enjoys reading American history, and looks forward to election days, it is important for us to continually root our joy and hope not in the next vote, but in what we know never changes: the Kingdom of God. Too often, Christians are tempted to put all their faith in the temporal. But while politics can be a useful vehicle in bringing our faith to bear on our communities, it is just that, a vehicle. Politics can easily seduce the soul into being an all-consuming endeavor, with religious fervor. As Christians who believe that all governments on this earth, even governments we love, are temporal, we should hold our politics loosely. Who wins matters and has serious implications, but what matters most is not what is happening in Washington, D.C., but what is happening in our local churches every Sunday. 

That truth brings me to my final reflection for election season: Christ is Lord over all. Kingdoms rise and fall. Leaders come and go. Movements ebb and flow. But we belong to a King and a Kingdom without end (Heb. 12:28). So whether you are exulting in victory or are tempted to despair, remember that Christ reigns over all, and nothing happens that is outside of his purposes. 

By / Jul 1

In January 2012, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam took the dais in the Tennessee House of Representatives to present his annual State of the State Address. In this speech that provided both an update on the progress the state was making and a framework for the year ahead, Haslam issued a simple challenge to all the assembled leaders and citizens of the Volunteer State: Believe in better.

While that was the theme of that particular address, after reading Haslam’s new book Faithful Presence, I am convinced the motto is more than just a nifty bit of sloganeering. In fact, I would go so far as to say this is his challenge to any Christian seeking to engage the tumultuous world of American politics –– and boy is it tumultuous.

In the first few chapters, Haslam touches on several studies and highlights multiple instances that show the deteriorating state of our public square. Anyone who has paid attention to the events in the political space over the last six months will readily agree.

Distinctly Christian political service

It is once this initial groundwork is laid by Haslam that his book really starts to take off. As I was reading his diagnosis of the weighty matters before us, it became clear that he is looking at the political arena as a mission field –– one in dire need of genuine Christian servants. And before you jump to any conclusion that this sounds just like every other book lining the shelves offered by various prosperity gospel grifters, Haslam continually returns to themes of service and humility as the true antidotes to the outrage plaguing our political system. He writes, “Our motivation for walking into the public square should always reflect our call to serve, not our desire to win” before he cites James 3:17-18 as how a Christian should conduct themselves in public life.

After laying down this marker, Haslam is clear-eyed in that this runs counter to the current incentive structure in our politics. “That kind of wisdom might not lead to a lot of likes on your Facebook page. It is easily drowned out by the shouting voices on cable TV. It might not even feel as good as finally being able to unload our opinions we think the world so desperately needs to hear.” As I read that list, I could feel the wincing of the dozens of political consultants I have worked with. And, in my former role where I was able to help call attention to Gov. Haslam’s good work, I likely would have, too. But with the perspective that comes from being outside the day-to-day machinations of political life, I can say that Haslam is absolutely correct about what is needed from Christians.

Haslam does an excellent job peppering the book with stories from his time as a public servant. His remarks about working through the democratic system and decision points with various matters are very helpful for readers because he works through how his faith guided him. His experiences with Cyntoia Brown, a prisoner he issued a pardon to, are deeply moving.

Several parts of the book are quintessential Haslam. At one point, he revisits one of his favorite analogies when he compares government to fire. 

“Government matters, and good government can make a big difference. Conservatives have often thought of government as the problem, not the answer, in Ronald Reagan’s famous words. Liberals have too often thought that more money was the answer to most problems. My view is that government is like fire. Out of control, fire can cause a lot of damage. Under control, it can warm our rooms and cook our meals. All of us need government to work . . .” 

And he relays several self-effacing stories that show he can laugh at himself. His interaction with President Obama in Memphis is a heart-warming classic.

Ultimately, though, this is a serious and thought-provoking read. To quote the fictional president, Josiah Bartlet, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” That is exactly what Haslam asks of his readers: Be present, and be Christ-like. In a world where so many choose to lob some of the harshest personal attacks from the safety of anonymous social media accounts, this is truly a countercultural call to action. “I share (my story) not as a plea for everyone to run for office but for all of us to see politics as a vocation, a place where, despite all of its messiness, God has used and will use faithful people,” he writes. 

Gratitude for all Haslam has experienced from his time in the public square emanates from every chapter in this book. As a citizen he once served in this state’s highest office, I, too, am grateful for his leadership. For eight years as governor, he exhibited a faithful presence because he believed in a better way. In effect, he practiced what he preached –– a novel approach these days. While I wish he would run for office again, at a minimum, I hope his words here will inspire a generation to follow in his footsteps, seeking the welfare of the city where the Lord has sent them (Jer. 29:7).