I have a wonderful friend who tells me that she does not want any part of politics. She does not want to hear about it. She does not want to talk about it. She believes that too many participants in politics are driven by hate. She is affronted by behavior and speech she regards as venomous.
Many Christians feel that way. Some do engage in the national conversations on topics such as taxation, budgets, social services and so forth, but my friend comments that when Christians say something, it is likely to be hate-filled speech. While I disagree that the political speech of most Christians is hate-filled, I did stop and take a closer look after she made that statement. I observed a couple of disappointing truths.
First, many Christians actually do believe that Christianity has the right and responsibility to dominate the culture. Secular thinkers complain that when Christians assert their right to express their faith, they are actually asserting cultural dominance. The secular thinkers say that Christians do not want “religious freedom.” Secular thinkers believe that Christians want “religious primacy.” The assumption by many Christians that cultural norms which held firm for more than two hundred years should continue unabated into the foreseeable future fuels the secular concern. The demographics tell us that the proportion of Christians in the population is declining as the proportion of secular thinkers is increasing, and the natural consequence of changing proportions is cultural change. Most human beings resist change, especially when it is uncomfortable change, and there are a lot of uncomfortable Christians in the culture of the USA.
Second, while I reject the accusation that Christians who speak out against cultural changes that are inimical to Christian teaching are venomous, I do observe that many are whiny. The sense that somebody stole the culture while we were not looking fuels that attitude. Whatever the explanation is, it won’t pass muster as justification for whining. Christians who whine are not doing any favors for the faith they want to promote.
Without going into the history of the declining Christian demographic, it is still proper to note that there is ample evidence that the founders of this country were predominantly Christian, and that those who were not Christian nevertheless believed that the God Christians worship existed and deserved respect. That is the worldview that shaped the nation for more than two hundred years.
Today, however, there are a couple of other worldviews that compete with Christianity for dominance: secular thinking and Islam. Christians who feel pressure to stop speaking and acting like a Christian in public are responding to the pressure from those two worldviews, but they are not always responding with the grace that the Bible tells us should be characteristic of Christians. A whiny victim mentality is not a testimony to our loving, victorious Christ, the One whose name shapes our name.
Just as Christ’s s name is embedded in the name of our religion, Christ himself is embedded in each believer. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) If the Holy Spirit is living in us, then our words and deeds ought to testify to that truth. We are called to bring the kingdom of God near to everyone we meet, and whiny complaints about ‘the war on Christmas’ and other such issues do not bring people near to the love that sent Christ to the cross. It almost seems as if Christians in general have become quite Pharisaical in their views. Some seem to believe that as the appearance of Christian cultural dominance declines, Christians themselves should take offense in the name of Christ.
Jesus never did any such thing.
Christ himself constantly offended those who worried about appearances. The Pharisees complained that Jesus did not respect the Sabbath, because he went right ahead and healed people on that day. They tested his respect for the Ten Commandments when he refused to judge the woman caught in adultery. They thought he defiled himself over and over by touching lepers and eating with publicans. The truth is, Christ did not and does not have much use for “appearances.”
That does not mean that Christians should sit on the sidelines of politics in the USA. The government of the USA is quite different from the government of the Roman Empire. In this country, citizens must participate in the government, or the Constitution will not work. If citizens worry that politics is dirty, then more of them must get involved in the work of cleaning it up. Christians care deeply about the values expressed in the culture that ultimately shape the government. If Christians refuse to participate then their voice will not be heard in the decisions that are made by elected officials. The culture shapes politics, and politics shapes the government.
One problem Christians face if they do get involved is a demand that they keep their religion to themselves. This demand arises from secular thinkers who believe that all religion is bunk. They do not want to hear about religion in public, especially not in government. A Christian who wants the government to mandate a national holiday on Good Friday will call down a firestorm on both himself and the faith he represents. Another issue growing in magnitude is pressure from Islam to incorporate sharia law into US jurisprudence. That pressure also wants to suppress Christian input, because Christian views did shape the English Common Law that is the basis for US law. Islam, a diametrically opposite worldview from secularism, believes that there is not and cannot be any separation between religion and government. Islam believes that Muslims must be governed by sharia law. Secular thinkers would say of Islam and Christianity, “a pox on both their houses.” The United States hosts a veritable conflagration of views that cannot all be simultaneously upheld.
The people who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had great respect for religion. They respected all religions. They believed that religion had an important cultural role in shaping the values of citizens. Unlike contemporary secular thinkers, the men who wrote the Constitution believed that the culture and the government alike benefited from the moral and ethical voice of religion expressed when citizens advocate for the laws and the services that shape the government. They expected people to express their religion in the expression of their values, and they honored that contribution as a counterweight to the government tendency to operate more pragmatically than ethically.
Christians, like any other US citizen, need to be part of the political discourse, speaking, acting and voting. They should, however, be recognized in political discourse the same way they are to be recognized in all other venues. They should be known for lovingkindness that makes people see Christ in them. Christ’s lovingkindness was at work when he cleansed the temple as surely as it was at work when he faced Pilate, so Christians must not confuse lovingkindness with abandonment of truth for the sake of “getting along.” The value of “coming together” only stands if the group that comes together actually accomplishes something good. It is a considerable test of character to advocate without compromise for an important principle while unfailingly projecting God’s love into the discussion.
Christians need to stand for objectives that are good. Even more important, while a political conversation may not be the place for an evangelistic sermon, it is certainly a place where God’s steadfast love for all people should be manifest. If Christians are only known for whining and crying that things are not the way they used to be, they are utterly failing in their call to be light in a dark world.
For more discussion of the challenge to live our faith as light in a dark world, read my review of Martin Roth’s book Brother Half Angel.