Christians Doing Politics take Another Beating

This latest beating was administered by Andrew Sullivan in his essay “The Forgotten Jesus” in the April 9, 2012 issue of Newsweek.

Sullivan asks, “What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?” To be sure, many Christians doing politics have succumbed to this temptation. Those Christians who believe that their calling in public life is to “coerce” others into embracing Christian values have indeed forgotten Jesus. Jesus taught us to engage others with love, nor coercion.

So, Sullivan’s criticism of the way some Christians do politics is well taken. But when he elaborates on his legitimate concern, he embraces an either-or false choice that I reject. He asserts that “The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles… They were saints because of the way they lived.” His assertion appears to preclude the possibility of Christians living as saints within the political realm, which I believe is a viable possibility.

But, on a more positive note, Sullivan is not arguing for “the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere.” He notes that there “are times” when “great injustices – slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation – require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will” (italics added). I heartily applaud this observation, until Sullivan rejects politics as an exertion of “power” that is antithetical to “nonviolence.”

In brief, my problem with Sullivan’s take on Christians doing politics is his equating of political involvement with coercive power plays. To be sure, there is ample evidence to support that equation. But this reflects a failure to imagine the possibility of Christians modeling an alternative way of doing politics, a way that is not characterized by power plays and coercive tactics; a way that is characterized by nonviolence and love, and that focuses on the “public witness” that he seems to embrace.

In this brief response, I will point to two ways in which Christians can model such a “loving” way of doing politics, and provide an example in each case of how this is actually being done. The first way focuses on the “content” of potential public policy legislation. The second example focuses on the manner in which Christians should engage those who disagree with their proposals for public policy legislation. Each example aspires to “remember” the life and teachings of Jesus.

As to the content of potential public policy legislation, the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25 are compelling. Christians are called to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, health care to the sick, and visitations to those in prison. A common characteristic of these callings is commitment to helping the most needy in our midst, especially those who have been marginalized.

A common response to these teachings of Jesus is that Christians are to practice obedience in their private lives or through their Christians communities, not by political means. But that overlooks two severe limitations of this “private charity” approach. First, it overlooks the fact the evil does not just exist within persons (personal evil); it also exists within broken societal structures (systemic evil). And history shows us that systemic evil cannot adequately be overcome by only addressing personal evil. For example, we need to remember that the civil rights legislation that addressed the systemic evil of segregation would never have occurred if we waited for segregationists to change their personal beliefs and practices. As important as private charity is, it fails to respond to systemic evil.

A second limitation of the “private charity” approach to addressing the pressing needs of those in our midst is that it does nothing to “give a voice in the public square” to the marginalized among us. In most current political discourse, one seldom hears from those who are hungry, thirsty, unwelcome strangers, in need of clothing, sick, or sitting in prisons. The silence is deafening. Who will speak for them in the political realm, if not those who remember the teachings of Jesus?

Let me illustrate this alternative way of addressing the content of potential political legislation with a concrete political initiative that is currently emerging in northwest Iowa, where I live. A handful of residents of Sioux County decided that “remembering Jesus” includes following his example of welcoming the stranger and caring for the marginalized persons in our midst. Our thoughts turned immediately to the growing number of Hispanic immigrants to our community, both documented and undocumented. How could we show love toward these our new neighbors? Rather than sitting around a table theorizing about that possibility, we started by talking with (not at or about) our new neighbors, as well as with those in our community who work most closely with the Hispanic community: clergy, employers, educators, social workers and law enforcement officers.

What emerged from these conversations (held weekly over a period of eight weeks) was a deep conviction that the current system of immigration laws is broken and needs to be fixed, as well as numerous good concrete ideas for fixing the current laws (short of the needed comprehensive immigration reform that appears to have little chance of being legislated in the current political climate). The most noteworthy result that emerged from our conversations was a realization of the devastating effect that current immigration laws were having on the stability and unity of the families of our Hispanic neighbors, as revealed by heart-breaking stories told by some of our new neighbors.

In addition to launching some non-political initiatives as a follow-up to these conversations (e.g., an annual Festival Latino that will celebrate Hispanic culture), we decided that “following Jesus” requires that we take the political initiative of launching a petition drive intended to get the attention of our local, state and national political representatives. The substance of our petition statement, titled “To Fix Our Broken Immigration System” reflects the good ideas that emerged in the extensive conversations we had with our Hispanic neighbors and those who work most closely with them, and can be accessed at As of this writing, we have 514 signatories from northwest Iowa and we can envision, through the eyes of faith, at least 1000 signatories as we expand out target audience to other regions in Iowa.

But isn’t launching a petition drive a form of “coercion?” Not at all! It is a matter of “bearing witness” to a the dehumanization that is resulting from our current broken immigration laws, and providing a “political voice” on behalf of our Hispanic neighbors whose voices are not being heard.

The alternative way of doing politics that I can envision through the eyes of faith also deals with the way that Christians ought to engage those in the political arena who disagree with them about the content of potential public policy legislation. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to surmise that the current state of political discourse is pathetic. It is painful to listen to politicians talking to, or about one another. Personal attacks are rampant. Most political opponents revel in demonizing one another and impugning each other’s motives. They generally listen only to an echo of themselves, and typically hold to fixed positions with little openness to learning from those with whom they disagree.

The better way that I can envision for politicians and citizens to talk with each other about controversial public policy issues is that of “respectful conversation.” This entails listening carefully to the contrary political views of others, trying to understand the genesis of those views, and then seeking for the common ground that is necessary for promoting the common good. To provide such a welcoming space for someone who disagrees with you to safely express that disagreement and to be open to learning from someone who disagrees with you is a deep expression of what it means to love the other person, to which Jesus has called all Christians (Matthew 22:39).

Lest you think that is all naïve utopian thinking, I refer you to the “Alternative Political Conversation” (APC) page on this web site, where six politically astute evangelical Christians who situate themselves at various points along the political spectrum (from “far left” to “far right”) are indeed modeling such respectful conversation relative to a number of controversial public policy issues.

I close with two possible rejoinders to my response to Sullivan. The first rejoinder, expressed by Sullivan and countless others, is that Jesus had no political agenda. That appears to be true. But we are no longer living in first century Palestine, where Christians were a persecuted, minority sect, with little hope of exerting a political influence. We live in pluralistic 21st Century America, where, thanks to the wisdom of our founding fathers, Christians have the opportunity to give voice to their religious commitments. To be sure, as Sullivan and many others have pointed out, many Christians have abused this opportunity by trying to exert the power of coercion. But, there is a much greater kind of power, the power of love, that Christians should be exerting in the public realm, including speaking up on behalf of the voiceless, and we have truly forgotten Jesus if we fail to exercise the power of love in the political realm.

A second possible rejoinder is that politics is so hopelessly broken that non-coercive political strategies, like launching petition drives, have little hope of making any difference. For my long answer to this rejoinder, see my speech “Planting Seeds of Redemption” on the “Speeches” page of this web site. My short answer is that Christians are called to be “agents for God’s redemptive purposes,” faithfully planting small seeds of redemption, one seed at a time, one day at a time, leaving the issue of “success” in God’s hands and entrusting the harvest to God.

If planting small seeds sounds too inconsequential to you, I know the feeling. Getting less than two percent of the residents in our corner of Iowa to sign our immigration petition is nothing to write home about. And modeling respectful conversation among a handful of evangelical Christians in our “Alternative Political Conversation” may hardly be noticed in the current wasteland of political mudslinging.

But when we are tempted to think that our attempts to do politics in a new way, a Christian way, are of little avail, then we need to remember the parable of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree; so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13: 31-32).

So, my plea to Andrew Sullivan is that at the same time that he legitimately points to the non-Christian way in which many professing Christians are doing politics, he should be open to the possibility of a genuinely Christian way of doing politics, a “loving way” that has not forgotten Jesus.