While many Christians may be apolitical or even look down on political involvement as being somehow not very “spiritual,” the truth remains that we live in a world where politics is one crucial dimension of human life.
Avoiding politics or taking a head-in-the-sand approach to the crucial issues of the day is both irresponsible and a neglect of our duty as believers to be salt and light in this world. Here is not the place to go into the reasons for Christian political involvement. For the moment I simply assume it is an important part of being a follower of Jesus Christ.
Nor is this the place to argue that Christianity ultimately transcends party politics. I have made that case elsewhere. Suffice it to say that believers are called to have an impact in every area of life, including the political realm, and that the biblical gospel must not be tied too closely to any one political ideology or party.
Having said that, we must be reminded of the fact that however idealistic and biblical we seek to be in our political expression of the faith, it will be played out here in the real world. That is, every believer who thinks and acts politically will fall somewhere along the political spectrum, either more to the left or to the right, or some combination thereof. There is no escape from landing somewhere on this spectrum, even though we may argue for some pure, untainted version of faith-based political thought and action.
Some Christians will try to argue that they are neither left nor right, but are seeking to represent some third way, which is more in tune with biblical concerns. But I am not sure this is possible. There is no one pure, unadulterated Christian view of politics, or Christian political party. All will fall short of the biblical ideal.
We all have part of the truth, but none of us have all of the truth. That is true of all aspects of life. In a fallen world with finite creatures, nothing we do or say will be 100 per cent pure biblical Christianity. But that should not deter us from seeking to be as Christ-like and biblically-based as possible.
Of course I make no bones about the fact that as a Bible-believing Christian, I find the right side of politics, generally speaking, to be more conducive to my faith. But I realise there are plenty of good Christians who are on the left side of politics. Thus I need to be careful not to demonise my friends on the religious left, and they also need to be on guard against this.
For example, the religious left often condemns the religious right for abandoning biblical principles and too closely aligning themselves with the political right. This is sometimes the case. But it seems that this is often true of the religious left as well.
Consider one very popular religious leftist in America, Tony Campolo. He regularly denounces the religious right in often quite strong terms, and chastises them for being un-Christlike. Yet a close look at his writings reveals that he too seems guilty of such charges. While he does have some good things to say, often it seems that he has just assumed that progressive politics is the only proper political version of biblical Christianity.
I came across a very good open letter sent to Campolo by Jordan Hylden in the February 2007 issue of First Things. It is well worth reading in its entirety, including the follow-up correspondence between the two (see the links below). Here I offer a few extracts from that article. It concerns Campolo’s recent book, Letters to a Young Evangelical.
Hylden begins by praising many aspects of the book, but then makes this telling observation: “You start off by accusing conservative Christians of uncritically baptizing the Republican agenda, and you claim to offer a biblical outlook that ‘transcends party politics.’ But then you turn around and support nearly every plank in the Democratic party’s platform. I tried to keep track: You make an argument (liberally peppered with Bible verses) for the Democratic position on abortion, gay marriage, tax cuts, trade policy, Iraq, nuclear disarmament, school vouchers, racial profiling, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, capital punishment, and global warming.”
He rightly asks, “I have no problem with politically liberal Christians, but why do you claim to be beyond party politics when you so clearly aren’t? Do you really expect us to believe that Jesus just happens to have the same politics as Nancy Pelosi?”
Consider the issue of homosexuality. Campolo has long criticised conservative Christians about this issue. Says Hylden: “As for gay marriage, you write that you are a conservative on this issue as well. But then you make an extended argument for the opposite position, ending with this clincher: ‘If you are going to be Red-Letter Christians, it is important for you to recognize that there is no record in the New Testament of Jesus saying anything about homosexuality.’ And, you add, ‘Evangelicals spend far too much time worrying about gay marriage’.”
He continues, “In truth, we do tend to worry about gay marriage – but we worry that it will contribute to the decline of marriage overall, which you say is ‘absurd.’ Government, you argue, should ‘get out of the marrying business completely.’ This seems like an odd position to take, especially for someone who cares about education and poverty. Surely you know what, say, James Q. Wilson has written about how strong marriages help children succeed in life, and how good marriages are becoming less common among the poor. Wouldn’t it make sense for government to encourage healthy marriages? And if it turns out that legalizing gay marriage would contribute to the problem, wouldn’t that be a strong argument against it? It may be that Maggie Gallagher is wrong to contend that gay marriage will weaken marriage overall, but surely that does not make people like her into ‘homophobic’ activists out to ‘deny gay and lesbian couples basic civil rights’.”
Campolo in particular, and the religious left in general, make much of the notion of justice, especially that elusive concept, social justice. They accuse those on the religious right of ignoring social justice, and failing to reflect biblical concerns in this area. But it seems the left is selective here. They speak much of justice for the poor and oppressed, but rarely seem to speak of justice for the unborn, for example.
In the follow-up correspondence, Hylden makes this important observation: “it is worrying that Campolo encourages young people to view Christian moral teachings on abortion and marriage with doubt and insouciance. As he admits, Campolo made a point in his book to present ‘both sides’ of the discussion on these two ‘controversial issues.’ To start with, one must wonder why these two issues … are presented as ‘controversial’ matters about which faithful Christians may disagree, while issues like foreign policy, environmentalism, and economics are presented as simple matters of justice. It is severely wrongheaded of Campolo to present abortion and sexual ethics as ‘controversial.’ While it is true that these issues have occasioned much controversy in American politics and that we ought to engage civilly and respectfully with those who dissent from Christian teachings, it is not true that God might or might not want us to kill unborn babies or that God might or might not call us to live by biblical sexual norms.”
Exactly. Why is it that the political left simply assumes that leftist positions like anti-capitalism and (often) anti-Americanism are just clear-cut biblical positions, but issues like abortion and homosexuality are far from clear, and need to be debated? The left is usually not happy with presenting all sides of the debate on such contentious issues as war and peace, or wealth and poverty. For them there is usually only one correct position to hold on such issues. Yet on issues that Scripture seem to be pretty clear about, they want debate and understanding.
It seems that the religious left is simply being that; of the left. They can be as selective and politically biased as anyone on the religious right can be.
Perhaps these quarrels and disagreements between the religious left and right is what puts many Christians off from political involvement in the first place. They may think it is all too hard or too controversial. But the fact that believers may strongly disagree is no reason to withdraw altogether from the important social and political issues of the day.
It just means that we all need to pray harder, think harder, and do more interaction with Scripture as we seek to discern God’s will on these various issues. While there may not always be just one clear biblical position on some of these difficult issues (such as global warming, nuclear energy or globalisation), that should not prevent us from doing all we can to act and think biblically on the hot topics of the day.
True, we will not be perfect in our analysis and reflection, and we will make mistakes. But opting out of the political arena entirely is not the solution. In a fallen world, we will fail in every area, including the political sphere. Yet we are called to exercise our faith in the world as it is, even if along the way we fail to always fully reflect the heart and mind of God in these areas.