Political Conversation as an Alternative to Domination or Withdrawal

This Musing is a much abbreviated variation of chapter 4 of my book “Let’s Talk,” titled “Political Domination, Withdrawal, or Conversation.”

Should followers of Jesus become involved in the political process? If so, how?

I will present, and reject two common responses to these questions, the Domination and Withdrawal approaches. I will then build a case for followers of Jesus to do politics and to take a conversational approach to the political realm.

Domination is Not an Option

Some Christians argue that the results of political legislation should exclusively reflect Christian beliefs. This call to dominate legislative outcomes is often based on a belief that America was founded as a Christian nation. As John Fea argues in his book Was America Founded As a Christian Nation,? this belief does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Although many of America’s Founding Fathers were Christian deists, they wisely avoided establishing Christianity or any other religion as a national religion, the precepts of which would have to be practiced by all Americans. They believed that the laws of the land must be legislated by a democratic process where proponents of diverse worldview beliefs, religious or secular, have an equal voice.

Of course, we Christians hope that the laws of the land will reflect Christian values, since these values are, in our estimation, human values. But adherents to other worldviews, religious or secular, believe the same to be true of their particular value commitments. Government should not give a priori preference to any set of value commitments during political deliberations.

Withdrawal is Not an Option

An alternative to the Domination approach to doing politics is for followers of Jesus to just withdraw from political involvement, generally citing the brokenness of the political realm. I also reject this approach because I believe that God wishes to redeem all aspects of life, including the political realm, and Christians are called to be agents for God’s redemptive purposes, with each Christian contributing in accordance with his or her giftedness.

But my conversations with Christian friends in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition have revealed a spectrum of views regarding whether Christians should do politics. Some in that tradition believe that politics is so extremely broken by human sinfulness that Christians should withdraw from political involvement, choosing rather to model a Christian way to live well together in their church communities. Others encourage active political involvement on the part of Christians, not in place of, but in addition to such modeling in Christian communities.

Given my antipathy toward bifurcations, I embrace a both/and rather than an either/or position. The late John Howard Yoder, the most distinguished of recent Anabaptist theologians, appears to accept this both/and position, as explained in his classic book The Politics of Jesus (See pp. 40-42 in Let’s Talk for my summary of Yoder’s position).

A Conversational Model for Doing Politics

To build a case for a conversational model for doing politics as an alternative to Domination or Withdrawal, I must first clear away two prevalent misconceptions.

#1: The Myth of Value Neutrality

Many Americans believe that, while it is acceptable for Christians (and other “religious folks”)  to express their religious beliefs in private (among family and friends and in their religious communities), these people should not bring their religious beliefs into the public square because their beliefs are based on certain value commitments while those holding to secular value commitments are “value-neutral.”

As argued by Roy Clouser in his book The Myth of Value Neutrality, this position is blatant nonsense. No one is value neutral. Everyone embraces a set of value commitments, in the ordinary sense of a set of commitments to what is considered to be important. And a person’s  value commitments inform his/her beliefs about political issues. Therefore, there should be an even playing field in public political discourse, with everyone having an equal voice, starting with expressions of their underlying value commitments.

#2: Separation of Church and State

One of the most significant accomplishments of America’s Founding Fathers is that they had the wisdom to erect a high wall of separation between church and state. As stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

I believe this wise stipulation was intended to be applied at the institutional level. No church body—such as a particular church, synagogue or mosque, or a particular grouping of churches, synagogues or mosques, such as a Christian church denomination representing a particular Christian tradition (e.g., Baptists, Presbyterians)—should be given preferential treatment. And no church body should be prevented from practicing their particular religious commitments, provided that these practices fall within other laws of the land.

But it is an error to interpret this wise stipulation as prohibiting individual religious or secular persons from bringing their religious or secular worldview commitments to public political discourse. Therefore, every American should have the opportunity to bring their worldview beliefs to public political discourse on an even playing field.

Having cleared away these two misconceptions, the elements of my conversational model for political discourse are:

  • Develop personal relationships of mutual understanding and trust with those with whom you have political disagreements.
  • Listen carefully to those who disagree with you about political issues (as a deep expression of love) and, when you adequately understand their reasons for their positions, engage them in respectful conversation about your agreements and disagreements toward the goal of finding some common ground and illuminating remaining disagreements.
  • Reach across the political aisle to seek both/and positions that reflect the best insights of those on both sides of the aisle.

A key element in my conversational model for doing politics addresses an enormous problem in American politics today: political inequality. Although denying or suppressing the right to vote for any citizen is an egregious sign of political inequality, the problem is deeper than that.

As political scientist Kim Conger has pointed out, the deeper problem is that not everyone has an “equal stake” in the political system; majority voices too often overrule minority voices. Particularly problematic is the way in which “campaign donations buy access and attention,” which too easily results in silencing the average voter and, especially, the marginalized members of our society.

Therefore, what is needed is an even playing field in which every American citizen, independent of his or her resources or status in society, is able to participate equally in the political process by first being given a voice. From my Christian perspective, the need for such a deep level of political equality is based on a premise that is foundational to all that I say in my Let’s Talk book: Jesus calls his followers to love others and you don’t love someone who you have silenced (For further elaboration, see pp. 192-199 in my book Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation).

The above narrative reveals my deep conviction that public political discourse should start everyone having the opportunity to express the value commitments that inform the positions they take on political issues. But my experience suggests that too many citizens are not quick to embrace this starting point, choosing rather to parrot a “party line.”  I will address this problem in my next Musing.






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