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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Is it Time for Believers to Pull out of Politics?

Dec 2, 2006

I have written before about the complex relationship between faith and political involvement. And I will do so again. Here I want to address one issue, which partly reflects the situation in the US, but has relevance for Australia as well.

The recent US midterm elections saw a shift from a Republican-controlled Congress to one controlled by the Democrats. Evangelicals are reflecting on the changes, and asking just how much value they got out of the last few years of Republican control. Some are saying that Bush did well on many fronts, but was often stymied by Congress, even though it was in the hands of his own party members.

Others have argued that the Republicans basically used the Evangelicals just to get themselves elected, but dumped them afterwards. Thus a lot of reassessing and evaluation is taking place. Some are suggesting that evangelicals should pull out of politics altogether.

One former White House staffer and Christian has written a book about his experiences, and it clearly expresses his bitterness and frustration. The volume in question is called Tempting Faith. It is written by David Kuo, who worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, started by President Bush. As a Christian keen to help the poor, he became involved in this work, only to later become disillusioned and feeling betrayed. Thus his book.

In it he suggests that believers take a two-year fast from political involvement, among other things. He also complains about the so-called religious right, and the fact that they do not always share the same agenda that he is concerned about.

How does one assess such views? I do not have the book as yet, but if and when I do get it, I will pen a proper review of it. In the meantime I can draw upon other assessments of the book. One such evaluation comes from Gary Schneeberger. Writing in the December 1, 2006 CitizenLink, he argues that Kuo’s bitterness has perhaps clouded his judgment. His book may be more of a case of sour grapes than of reasoned biblical reflection.

Says Schneeberger, “Kuo’s frustration is understandable. It is disheartening to engage the public-policy process on an issue you care about and to come away feeling as though the elected officials you trusted let you down – or, worse, manipulated and used you. Many values voters who delivered both houses of Congress to Republicans in 2004 have felt that way for a couple of years now; the things they care about – defending marriage, restricting or banning abortion, protecting unborn human life from the suspect science of embryonic stem-cell research – were in large part ignored by the 109th Congress. That’s one of the reasons why Democrats will wield the gavels in the 110th Congress.”

But while Kuo’s disappointment may be understandable, his critique of others is less so: “Kuo lets his bitterness take him down a pair of unfortunate roads. The first leads him to attack fellow believers whose policy-advocacy priorities differ from his. The chip on his shoulder seems to stem from the belief that anyone who works within the system to end the evil of abortion is somehow not interested in easing homelessness and hunger. That is ludicrous on its face, of course; if you care about protecting unborn babies, how can you not care about starving babies? Both are sanctity of human life issues – the difference is some groups and individuals advocate for one more strongly than the other as a matter of calling or vocation. That is not a crime, or a sin – or something that justifies a fellow believers’ derision.”

And his call for political non-involvement is also problematic: “The second bad place Kuo allows his bitterness to take him is concluding that Christians should take a two-year ‘fast’ from political intervention – it’s OK to vote, but writing Congress, working for campaigns, lobbying for policy goals, etc., should be abandoned so we can focus more on intimacy with Jesus. The implicit notion here is Christians can’t seek Jesus and seek righteousness in the public square at the same time. Again, ludicrous on its face.”

“Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson – who Kuo called a political ‘whore’ in one of the TV interviews he’s done about Tempting Faith – had a great answer for the author on the Nov. 22 edition of Larry King Live. ‘He says that values voters should take two years off,’ Dobson told King. ‘To whom would you say that, other than evangelicals? Would you say that to homosexuals? Would you say that to feminists? Would you say that to Jews? Would you say that to African-Americans? Just don’t care about your issues for the next two years? That is nonsense’.”

Schneeberger notes some other comments made by Kuo that seem less than edifying or Christ-like. But again, he seems to be writing from hurt. But that disappointment should not allow his judgements to become warped and unhelpful. He seems to have simply gone to an extreme position, because of his painful experiences in politics.

I have written elsewhere that it is simply a false dilemma to suggest that a believer either engage in proclaiming the gospel or be involved in political involvement. Both can and should be done simultaneously. It is not a question of either/or, but both/and.

Christian involvement in the world will take many forms. Working on behalf of the poor is certainly one such way the faith is made manifest in the public arena. So is defending the sanctity of marriage, or fighting against dehumanising biotechnologies.

Working with AIDS victims, and warning of the harmful consequences of the homosexual lifestyle are both expressions of the Christian faith. I do not see why one must be embraced and the other rejected. All manner of activities make up the Christian witness to the world.

Kuo may well offer us a timely warning to not put our faith in politics. But that has always been the case. We have always known that – or should have known that. But he seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Christians have a legitimate role to play in government and society. Indeed, we have a biblical mandate to enter these various arenas, as we seek to make our world a better place.

If Kuo no longer sees the point of Christian social involvement, fine. But he should not be damning those who feel they have a calling to do just that.

www.citizenlink.org/clcommentary/A000003272.cfm

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4 Responses to Is it Time for Believers to Pull out of Politics?

  • Disillusionment is a good thing, it means being rid of an illusion. To become discouraged and bitter because things don’t work out the way we think they should with knee jerk reactions would indicate to me that Kuo went into the fray with the wrong motives. ALL politicians have a religious bias, even if it is atheism and it is necessary for Christians to be in the fray. However, the Christian should be careful that the heat of the battle does not allow their Christ-likeness be found wanting. We do promote what is right because it is right to do so, when things don’t go our way, spitting the dummy just highlights our weaknesses.

    David Owen, Melbourne

  • At a conference in Canberra, some years ago, the Late Dr Glenn Martin challenged Christians to join the major political parties. He claimed that Christians could change the nation by doing so. He also claimed that there was one thing politicians fear more than election campaigns and that was preselections. Christians can play a major role in weeding out unsuitable candidates through the preselection process and speak persuasively to incumbent politicians. It is encouraging to see Christians taking up the challenge.

    Eric Frith, Canberra

  • It is important that Christians engage actively in the political process and I know that can happen in many ways and at various levels. I guess from where I sit, I am frustrated that there are too few women with Christian values in politics. I applaud the brave ones who are there. While most of us are at home raising our families, there is a void which is being filled by the Nettles, Allisons etc. The stem cell debate came down to one vote in the senate, and as with the RU486 vote I felt particularly let down by the female vote… not sure what the answers are there, but I am teaching my daughters to use their voices on such issues as much as possible.

    Julie Robinson

  • I notice another example of Christian naivety emerging also.

    Apart from taking a simplistic view that by merely putting a solid and logical argument we can win the day purely because it is right, I notice that we collectively look only at the public image of poilitics – the parliamentary process itself.

    I confess to a mea culpa here: all my so-called political involvement has been in defensive mode to protect something I consider worthwhile. So Eric’s comment above about the pre-selection process struck a bit of a nerve in me.

    I am still learning that serious battles are won at the policy development stages both in the parties and in the bureaucracy.

    Some significant policy initiatives take years: economic rationalism (for all its supposed faults) took 15-20 years of policy work to displace various forms of economic irrationalism. Sadly, the job is still incomplete, because the Australian moral fibre has been damaged in other areas.

    Since we have an eternal perspective over our lives, we need to recognise that background policy work takes time and mental energy, and be prepared to roll up our sleeves, gird up our brains and get into it.
    John Angelico

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