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Honoring God in Red or Blue
Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason
By Amy E. Black, Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2012 Amy E. Black
All rights reserved.
Let's Talk! Bringing the Taboo to the Table
If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.
One need not be well-versed in the intricate details of proper etiquette to know some basic truths about the unspoken rules of "polite" conversation. There are two topics that a polite guest never mentions at a dinner party: politics and religion.
Why might etiquette books warn people to steer clear of these subjects? People often have deeply held beliefs about religion and politics, so discussions of such intensely personal topics can quickly become divisive and uncomfortable. Instead of initiating a conversation that could lead to frustration and anger, it may seem wiser to avoid such subjects altogether. But silence or shouting matches are not the only options. If we can find ways to think and talk about religion and politics that won't automatically cause friction, perhaps we can be less afraid to bring these topics to the table.
Although Miss Manners may warn against discussing either of these subjects, the purpose of this book is to defy those rules of etiquette and encourage you to talk about them. This book will help you find appropriate ways to break from the social convention and talk more, not less, about religion and politics.
As a professor of American politics teaching at a Christian college, I think about the connections between religious and political perspectives every day. Although this task is not always comfortable or easy, it is not only valuable—it is essential. Religious values and beliefs directly and indirectly affect how most Americans think about politics. To contribute productively to contemporary debates about American politics, we need to understand both the role of religion and the purpose and limitations of government.
This book is designed to help you navigate the rocky waters of religion and politics so you can engage in lively and fruitful conversations. The chapters that follow will help you address questions such as: How should my Christian perspective affect my political views? How should I respond when I see Christian leaders disagree about politics? Should Christians just avoid politics altogether? How should my faith affect my voting decisions and political participation? On this journey, you will learn more about the American political system and how your faith can inform your political views and actions.
Religion and Politics, "American Style"
Anytime we begin to talk about a serious topic, it is useful to know where everyone is coming from. We cannot help but bring our own perspectives, life stories, and viewpoints into a discussion. We all have ideas about how the world works and what we think is most important, and these ideas help shape our understanding of those around us. If three people are discussing effective parenting techniques, it is useful to know that one has three teenagers, another has a toddler and a baby, and the third has no children. Each person can contribute important insights to the conversation, but their views will likely, in part, reflect their personal experiences.
Let me begin our conversation together by mentioning three of my starting points. I will introduce some of my underlying assumptions about the role of religion in the United States to help you better understand the perspective that will guide the rest of my discussion.
The United States Is, and Has Always Been, a Nation of Many Faiths
Any frank discussion of religion in contemporary American politics must begin with the recognition that the United States is not, nor ever has been, exclusively Christian. The Constitution created a democratic government designed to protect individual freedoms. Freedom of religion, one of those cherished liberties, is a foundational principle of American democracy.
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Given the religious diversity of the United States, we should not expect everyone to accept nor to embrace political arguments that appeal exclusively to Christian principles and doctrine.
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People from a wide diversity of faiths live in the United States and participate in American politics. According to recent survey data, about three of four adult Americans identify themselves within the Christian tradition, but dozens of other religions also have a place here. Consider one example: The number of Americans identifying as Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus has more than doubled in the past decade alone. These three religions combined now represent about the same percentage of the population as Jews. The religious group growing most rapidly is seculars, those who say they are not religious at all.
This book approaches the subject of religion and politics in the United States with an awareness of and appreciation for our nation's religious diversity. Just as I want the government to protect my freedom to worship as I choose, so must I promote policies that respect the rights of others to practice their religion. Furthermore, given the religious diversity of the United States, we should not expect everyone to accept nor to embrace political arguments that appeal exclusively to Christian principles and doctrine. Religious views and traditions can and should inform our political perspectives; indeed, the purpose of this book is to help you apply your faith to your politics with care and discernment. But even as we approach politics and government as Christians, we should do so aware that we are engaging in conversations with people from a wide range of perspectives.
Religion Affects Everyone's View of Politics
A second underlying assumption builds from the first. Although some people may think that their religious views have little influence on their thoughts on politics, in practice this is rarely, if ever, the case. Views of religion, notions of right and wrong, and beliefs about the existence of a god or gods and life after death all affect politics, either directly or indirectly.
Consider a few examples of religion directly influencing politics. Some pastors, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders teach their faithful to support particular political issues and candidates. Many people talk informally about politics when they gather for worship or other congregational events. At some houses of worship, interest groups distribute voter guides that "compare" candidates for office on a few select issues, sending a clear directive about which candidate deserves the vote.
Because religious beliefs provide a basis for morality, religion also has an indirect but significant influence over political views. In much the same way that religious teaching helps us discern right from wrong in everyday life, it also offers a framework for evaluating a legislative proposal, comparing candidates for office, or assessing the latest actions of the local school board. Even those who do not identify with a particular religion still uphold some form of moral code that, much like an explicitly religious worldview, will affect their approach to politics.
The Ultimate Christian Calling Is to Love God and Follow Him
If religion really affects everyone's views of politics but we don't all share the same religious views, how do we reach enough agreement to govern effectively? Although the context of American politics makes it difficult to reach democratic consensus, I believe that Christians can serve important roles in shaping and guiding both politics and the wider culture. These beliefs lead to my third starting point: politics and government are important, but the most important Christian calling is to love God and follow Him.
As participants in a representative democracy, we need to learn about politics and government to help us make positive civic contributions, but influence in government and politics should never be our primary goal. Political power is enticing and potentially very dangerous; the lure of power can quickly turn us away from serving God. In politics as in all endeavors, Christians must not lose sight of their ultimate purpose.
In his classic writing On Christian Teaching, Augustine writes to a young church trying to interpret Scripture correctly and avoid heresy. He points to love as the guiding principle of Christianity, reminding his readers of Jesus' explanation when asked what was the greatest commandment: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37–40). Keeping in mind what Augustine calls the "double love" of God and neighbor will help us discern God's truth from false teaching and provide a guide for Christian thought and action.
Honoring God in Politics and Government
Where should we look for guidelines for engaging with politics in ways that demonstrate love for God and our neighbors? What biblical principles can guide us as we seek to honor God in politics and government?
A Blueprint for Politics in the Old Testament
The Ten Commandments provide a helpful starting point. The first commandment calls us to worship God alone, and the second follows from it, prohibiting idolatry:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:3–6)
Only the one true God is worthy of worship, yet other gods capture our attention and fight to take His place. Political power is one such potential idol. If Christians lose confidence in God's sovereign control and instead look primarily to politics to restore society and culture, they can make government into such an idol.
Likewise, the third commandment reminds us of the power and holiness of God and His perfect name: "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name" (Exodus 20:7). Far more than condemning swearing, this commandment warns against using God's name for anything that does not honor Him.
When defending our political views and actions, we should follow the principles of the third commandment, using God's name with utmost care and reverence. As one pastor explained, "God's answer to a world that blasphemes His name is a community who honors His name. Honoring the Lord's name is our highest calling. Christ will be honored when the world sees a community of people who show awe and affection for Him." In politics as in all spheres of life, we should honor God and serve as light to the world.
A Blueprint for Politics in the New Testament
In much the same way that the first three commandments offer principles to guide Christians who are thinking about politics and government, New Testament passages also provide important insights. Many commentators rightly direct believers to Paul's discussion of civil authority in Romans 13. Although this passage provides a useful description of God's provision for government, when I am asked what biblical text I find most practical for developing a Christian approach to politics, I point first to a different passage, 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.
In this letter, Paul encourages and instructs the church in Corinth, a church struggling with internal division and with a culture fixated on status and power. As one commentator observes, "Paul's purpose is not to correct their theology but to get them to think theologically so they would respond properly to their polytheistic, pluralistic culture." We, too, can find guidance in this epistle to help us think theologically about interactions with politics and government.
First Corinthians chapters 11 through 14 offer Paul's teaching on worship, life in community, and spiritual gifts. He is concerned that some in the church are too prideful, and he writes to correct them. In a short detour from the specific topic of spiritual gifts, Paul reminds the Corinthians that love is the central guiding principle for interaction with God and with one another. Toward the end of this famous description of God's unconditional love, Paul writes:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8–13)
Even as we are reminded of the power and depth of God's love, we are also cautioned of our human limitations. Paul warns against spiritual pride, reminding us that we all "see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" (v. 12). Our own sinfulness and the fallen state of nature cloud our vision. We can look with hope for the day we will "see face to face" and "know fully," for everything will indeed be clear in God's eternal presence. But, in the meantime, life this side of heaven will be marked by confusion and uncertainty.
A Framework for Thinking about Politics
So how might politics look different if viewed through the prism of the first three commandments and 1 Corinthians 12 and 13? Let me suggest four principles to guide a Christian framework for thinking about politics and government.
We all "see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" and therefore should exercise genuine humility when discussing politics.
When politicians speak, they typically speak with great certainty and clarity. We expect our elected officials to act decisively, and their rhetoric reflects these expectations. But certainty can quickly turn to arrogance, especially when combined with religious language. Critics will often say of someone who holds an opposing view: "Who does she think she is? God?"
Biblical examples such as Paul's teaching to the Corinthians suggest a very different model for talking about politics. If indeed we only have partial knowledge, it follows that a Christian perspective on politics should begin in a context of humility and love. As limited humans, we don't have all the answers. Instead of arrogantly proclaiming our political views, we should approach this subject, as all others, with awareness of our limitations and reliance on God's love and wisdom. We can speak from our religious convictions with love and humility, arguing our views with passion but with respect for others.
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Since we all have imperfect knowledge this side of heaven and we are each created to serve different functions in the body of believers, it follows that Christians may disagree on political issues.
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The diversity of the body of Christ makes room for Christians to disagree on many political matters.
God creates each man and woman as a unique bearer of His image, giving each person a distinctive set of talents that glorify God. As Paul reminded the church in Corinth: "But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body" (1 Corinthians 12:18–20). We are created to live and serve in community, so it makes sense that Christians work best when they combine their perspectives and gifts to work together for the common good. Each person has a valuable contribution to offer.
Excerpted from Honoring God in Red or Blue by Amy E. Black, Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse. Copyright © 2012 Amy E. Black. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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