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Real Talk: How Should Christians Engage With Politics?

Real Talk: How Should Christians Engage With Politics?

Another election year is upon us, and while in many ways it feels similar to where we were four years ago, a lot has happened. Economic changes, wars, presidential court cases — it’s proof that life can change drastically in just four years.

One thing that hasn’t changed much, however, is how Christians engage with politics. And while there’s not precisely a one-size-fits-all method when it comes to politics, there is a way that Christians are called to speak about our country’s leaders.

Michael Wear addresses this often tense relationship between faith and politics in his latest book, The Spirit of Our Politics. Wear is a member of the executive leadership team for the AND Campaign and the founder of Public Square Strategies. Before becoming a leader in the non-profit world, Wear spent four years working with former President Barack Obama managing The White House’s engagement on religious and values issues. In short, he’s had plenty of experience watching the relationship between faith and politics.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

In The Spirit of Our Politics, you write about how American politics is “sick” right now. What is the root of the sickness?

There are many ways to talk about the sickness of our politics, and I address it in several ways in the book. One of the central threads is the framework of political sectarianism, a way of thinking about the kind of polarization we have.

This concept was advanced by social scientists in 2020. They described it as a toxic cocktail of three primary ingredients. First, a tendency of aversion, which is a tendency to dislike or distrust people who have different political views or belong to a different political party. Second, a tendency of othering. Finally, a tendency of moralization or misplaced moralization, elevating political disagreement to the level of sin or iniquity, a pure contestation of good and evil. This toxic cocktail is having disastrous consequences for the way our politics functions, including governance and the ability to get things done, as well as significant spillover effects at the personal, social and community levels. Our families and churches are strained by this toxic polarization, this political sectarianism.

At the core of my book is the argument that the kind of people we are has much to do with the kind of politics we have. We can think about political sectarianism in terms of the structures that facilitate or exacerbate this tendency of aversion, othering and moralization. It is also vital for individuals to consider their role in this. What are the ways in which you are incentivizing or playing into these tendencies of aversion, othering and misplaced moralization?

How, if at all, should we let our identity inform our politics?

There have been some predominant ways we’ve thought about politics. One is to place politics above the gospel and faithfulness. Another is to view politics as outside of and irrelevant to the gospel and questions of faithfulness. What I address in this book is the need to place politics under and within the gospel.

We should approach politics as essential, not ultimate, not the only, but an essential form in which we can love our neighbors. We should view politics as a form in which we live out our faith and learn from Jesus how to live our lives as he would live them if he were us. That is a different paradigm for thinking about politics than others that seem prevalent these days.

What does a genuine Christian approach to politics look like?

I think we need to move away from the idea that having a Christian approach to politics means having the “right answers” to a limited set of policy or political questions. These ideas are deeply related to the broader Christian life, which is about more than just having the right answers to a few doctrinal points.

In my book, I discuss what Dallas Willard referred to as “Gospels of Sin Management,” which I call the “Fixer Gospel” and the “Toolbox Gospel.” These concepts are tied to our approach to politics. Instead, Christians should recognize several things about politics: it is penultimate, not ultimate; political opinions aren’t tantamount to Christian dogma; and politics is an area of prudence.

When we engage in politics, we are translators, not stenographers. We seek to translate ultimate values into the prudential area of politics, not to enact God’s will through our political pronouncements in an unimpeachable way. Politics is contingent on time, place, and context; policies that might be good in one context may not be in another.

Christian resources can offer valuable perspectives on issues like immigration, poverty, and the dignity of life. We should bring these contributions with humility and discernment. However, I believe that the greatest contribution Christians can make to politics now is not dictating what politics should be, but reminding politics of what it is not and the space it should not occupy. Christians have tremendous resources to aid in this effort.

One of the things you write about is a call for a “gentler approach” to how we talk about American politics. What does that look like practically? And can we actually achieve it in today’s political climate?

I think that thinking about gentleness in politics requires specific thought. There isn’t just a general answer. We must consider what it looks like for gentleness to be viable in political life.

We’ve operated for so long as if politics is an area of life cordoned off from God, where the way of Jesus either doesn’t hold up or isn’t realistic. One question I have is: Don’t think about this theoretically. Think about your life and the specific challenges to gentleness in political life. Particularize it to you because you can’t be faithful with Senator so-and-so’s life or the head of an advocacy organization. You can only be faithful with, as Willard would say, that which is within the effective range of your will. Politics can be contentious, and as we discussed, there is a logic of politics that is not gentle.

In the book, I argue that we can become the kind of people our politics needs. We can resist the impulses, promises, and temptations of politics that suggest that if we were just willing to cultivate anger in the right way, we could achieve something good. The other side is angry, but not for the right reasons. They keep winning, so what if we used anger on our side to move politics in a better direction? A Christian will say, “I’m not confident in our ability to cultivate anger, direct it, and do more good than harm.” I’m concerned about what it does to the soul to promote a politics of fear. I think there are better motivations in our political life, in my political life, and in what we’re promoting generally, so that the means match the ends.

When talking with people working in politics, there’s a specific kind of conversation. They have jobs and may be asked to do things they don’t personally agree with, or there may be a deep embeddedness in the practices. For those not working in politics, it’s important not to take on the burdens of being political strategists in an unhealthy way or carrying out our politicians’ fights for them. Political parties and campaigns are constructed to make the case for why they’re the best, often by making the case for why the other side is bad. But as citizens, we don’t have that burden. You don’t have an obligation to assume a political identity. We can be freed from that burden.

To a majority of Americans, it feels like we’re in a polarized system, but you are arguing we can live in the middle in a more balanced way. What are some guidelines we can have to keep ourselves in check and make sure we’re not feeding into the polarization?

In the new book, I offer a range of practical ways of thinking about your political involvement and how your life intersects with politics, along with some practices relevant to the particular challenges our politics presents right now.

Those practices range from thinking about tried-and-true practices like silence, solitude, prayer, worship, celebration, study, and confession as connected to our political life. They also include what I call 21st-century spiritual disciplines for public life. These are things like how we consume and approach the news, and how we can be agents of breaking groupthink, especially in our own groups, where political consensus among friends can sometimes be unhelpful. I suggest the discipline of affirming those you oppose politically in specific ways and critiquing those you generally support.

There’s a section in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, an incredible passage where he says Christians never meet one-on-one. Jesus is always standing between them, mediating among them. He says that when we meet with another Christian, we’re never seeking to act directly on the person we’re meeting with. We’re looking to Jesus and seeing what Jesus is seeking to do in the life of the person we’re interacting with.

That has the potential to free us from the desire to coerce, manipulate, and instrumentalize people. I propose in the book that it would be incredibly life-giving for us to approach politics in the same way.

What encouragement do you have for young people who already feel politically burned out?

It’s important to keep in mind your motivations. Political engagement can be difficult, especially for younger people who have grown up in a digital environment and a culture of customer service and responsiveness. If I donated $50 to Charity Water right now, they’d send me a GPS feed where I could watch a live camera of a well that my money helped support. I could literally see people drinking water from the well my contribution made possible.

You will rarely know whether your actions, like showing up at a school board meeting, writing a letter, or having a conversation, made a difference. If you are engaging in politics for the desire of that kind of credit, you will burn out quickly. Before burning out, you may go through a period of seeking certainty about the value of your contribution.

Christians engage in politics because we care about people. God loves people, and we love people too. We know political decisions greatly impact our neighbors, particularly the most vulnerable and disinherited. Whether the political system gives us affirmation or not, we are seeking to steward the limited responsibility we have in a loving way toward our neighbors. As citizens, we do not choose to have political responsibility; we already have it. The only choice we have is what to do with it.

I want that to be encouraging. As my friend Tyler Wigg Stevenson wrote in his book about a decade ago, the world is not ours to save. Taking responsibility for political outcomes can lead to a soul-crushing place. Instead, try to be faithful with what you have. Keep the means in mind, not just the end, because for Christians, faithfulness is both the means and the end. Always keep learning and keep your political engagement practical.

Many young people feel burned out by politics, but they aren’t actually engaging in politics. They say they’re burned out from watching cable news, scrolling through their newsfeed, and arguing online. Getting in arguments online is rarely, if ever, politics.

A lot of people are burned out and apathetic toward our political culture without ever participating in our political system. One of the most encouraging and invigorating things you can do is to focus on a specific issue and a particular aspect of our political system you can personally engage in. By doing the work, the political culture will become less oppressive and wearing.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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