Should Christians go into politics?

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague (Danny Huizinga)

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague (Danny Huizinga)

Christians should get more involved in politics.

At the moment, the reputation of Christians in public life is disastrous. Religious people are often seen as fanatical fundamentalists, leading massive hate campaigns complete with picket signs and boycotts.

This projection is not representative of most Christians. Yes, there are those who use religion as a weapon, perceiving a divine backing of their actions though they intend only to attack and insult.

But once you look past these outliers, you discover the true Christians in politics. They are people who hold immense amounts of political power or influence while still recognizing a higher power. They don’t use their religion as a weapon, but they also don’t shove their convictions under the rug on the way to work.

“The most important thing to remember is humility,” one such person told me in a large office in Washington, DC. “I’ve had some amazing opportunities, but I always remember that it is not by my own doing.”

Christians in politics recognize God’s transcendence over the matters of this world, while not discounting the importance of glorifying him by pursuing virtue and justice. When we do this successfully (though never perfectly), we bring the “service” back to public service.

A Christian that engages in firestorm attacks, offensive insults, or unfounded accusations reflects poorly on the whole faith community. We have a duty to glorify God by striving to maintain kindness and understanding in all of our actions.

“We need Christians in politics who believe in conversation and reasoned discourse,” Judge Ken Starr, president of Baylor University, told me in an interview. “What we don’t need, regardless of faith journey, is people who simply yell at one another or shout the other side down. To my mind, that’s not a very Christ-like attitude.”

Starr has had an admirable career in public service, while remaining a committed Christian. He says we “absolutely” need more Christians in politics, as long as they remain “respectful, kind, and compassionate to those with whom they disagree.”

Admittedly, that’s hard to do sometimes. When you know you’ve won a political argument, it’s hard not to gloat. But Starr reminds us of some guiding principles. “We need to take seriously the admonition to turn the other cheek. We also need to control our emotions, and we need to be determined to smile a bit more. Keep our voices down, smile, and advance an attitude of caring and respect.”

Think you can do those things? Then we’d love to have you in the political world.

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20 responses to “Should Christians go into politics?

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts Danny. I agree wholeheartedly. I wrote about “A Christian Case for Humility” this week, which interestingly seems to fit in with a great deal of what you were saying.
    It’s important to champion the Truth, but in a winsome, kind manner, not in one that gloats and rubs the Truth in another’s face.

  2. Until Locke, theocracy, or at least divine monarchy, was commonplace. America certainly began as a hybrid theocracy-secular state, and has since evolved into the secular state we have today. It’s interesting to watch that evolution. Back then, the debate was whether clergy should go into politics. Today, we are questioning whether lay Christians should go into politics. Call me a traditionalist, but I was left behind in this debate sometime after clergy but before lay Christians. It’s not even a reasonable question in my mind to ask whether individual Christians should go into politics. Of course they should. But the church hierarchy should stay out.

    • May the church hierarchy (Catholic) or the church corporate (Synod) make pronouncements about abortion, just war, LGBT issues, poverty? Sometimes the line between making moral statements and/or political statements can be mighty thin.

      • The church hierarchy certainly has the authority to make political statements and take political positions. But the church hierarchy should not hold political power. That’s where I draw the line.

        • You raise an interesting point. Is the church hierarchy anywhere near as influential or a threat to secular government as the time of the founding?

          Mike Huckabee was a pastor, and Mitt Romney technically was a sort of bishop. Still, no one seriously thought they were going to impose a theocracy on America when they were presidential candidates. Maybe you mean professional clergy should not hold a political office at the same time? Perhaps. But I wonder if politicians today generally drop their side projects when in office. Why would we single out religion as an exception to discriminate against?

          • Correct. I have no problem with former priests, former pastors, former bishops, former any religious position running for office. But I draw the line at holding both religious and political office at the same time, whether in official capacity or de facto. Madison and Jefferson had a long debate over whether clergy should hold office, and Jefferson eventually succumbed to Madison, and agreed that clergy should be allowed to hold office. I think the threat of the church holding any power over the state is so remote that “theocracy” is essentially a useless word in American political debates today. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that it’s unconstitutional to ban clergy from holding office. No, it’s not for political reasons that I think clergy shouldn’t hold power. It’s for religious reasons. I think the church is most conducive to influencing social justice movements than legislation.

  3. “A Christian that engages in firestorm attacks, offensive insults, or unfounded accusations reflects poorly on the whole faith community.” This practice seems ubiquitous among the current political landscape. I’m curious as to what the ideal xian politician would look like in your understanding.
    I’m quite skeptical about your conclusions. The coercive nature of political power creates some miry ethical problems for both right and left-wing xians in these positions. Christian Democrats will use the bible to advance their own economic agenda. Christian Republicans will impose social codes. In my view, both are bounded up in a sort of Niebuhrian Christ of and above Culture. The contemporary “gospel” is then transformed into advancing democratic, libertarian, and individualistic values. Of course I personally benefit from this sort of society, but I would caution you against ascribing a divinely-ordained status.
    Sure, we can idealize through formulating that xian politicians understand themselves as situated under a “higher power.” But I think this is hardly the case in our fallen world. To cling to such a view would be rooted in detached, universalized optimism from the social liberalism of the Enlightenment. To quote Greg Boyd: “Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.”
    It looks like you’re not a fan of anabaptist social ethics. It’s likely that the biggest point of disagreement between you and me is that rather than dominionism, I think the church must solely exist as a witness to the Kingdom of this world. The church ought to be about love instead of getting into bed with Caesar.

    • How does being involved and engaging in public discussions become “getting into bed with Caesar?” You quoted a lot of philosophy – but what’s the bottom line? Do you think Christians should not be involved in politics?

      • In some ways, yes, I don’t think Christians should be involved in politics. The Christian life is inherently political, however, but I do not think this necessarily equates to participating in the American system of coercive and legitimizing power. Instead of lobbying for this or that ideology and using the bible for justification in the public arena, the church ought to act as a witness distinct from this world. This is where I believe people like Barack Obama and Michele Bachmann get the Christian life wrong. But by all means, engage in public discussions. I’m not discounting that. The difference lies in what happens after the discourse. Example: will the church itself address poverty in the community? Or will they just work to create new laws (grounded in either conservative or liberal ideals) and call it a day?

        • Ah, I see. Well I definitely agree then that the church (and Christians) should be addressing poverty rather than limiting its influence to lobbying for congressional legislation. But I also believe government programs to reduce poverty are highly ineffective.

          I think there’s a way to be “in” the political world, but not “of” it. I’m not advocating for using Bible verses to prove a political point – just trying to point out that there are many committed Christians “in politics” who don’t do that at all.

          • Interesting point. Two books that have been highly influential for me in this theological/ethical area have been Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, and Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp.

          • Wow what a stimulating post and conversation. I’m not sure what specifically would make a Christian in American politics a Dominionist. I think a Christian can have good public reasons for a policy that often coincide with a Biblical view. Surely, we can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. Like a soldier, doctor, or farmer, a politician should be considered all else equal a noble and worthy calling.

            I am in the middle of a course on ethics at Biola, and my prof has interacted with Haerwas. From what I understand, he is something of an Aristotelian virtue ethicist, which seems to me a good thing.

  4. Well-done. What gets rough though is trying to identify what it means to be Christian in politics beyond respectful discourse, that is identifying the content of a virtuous political agenda, one in line with the trajectory of the gospel itself. In that regard, Martin Luther King has been an important model for me.

    • I think MLK was a great Christian model precisely because he did NOT engage in respectful discourse. He called the “white moderate” worse than the KKK. He refused to compromise with the councilmen who sought to seek common ground. When asked to leave his religion at the door and make his march more secular and inclusive, he outright walked out of the meeting. MLK’s approach was one of godly justice without an ounce of moderation. And that’s what made him great.

      • Truth-telling straight talk combined with non-violent activism. No name calling or needless inflammatory language. “We will match your ability to hate with our ability to love,” etc… He’s my man!

        • With due respect, brothers, I am sensing a tension between your two conceptions of MLK Jr. Was he one who did not engage in respectful discourse, or was he one who refrained from needlessly inflammatory language? Those two seem mutually exclusive.

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