Politics is regularly nasty. And in 2015-2016, presidential politics has been more nasty than usual. Furthermore, for a decade and more, political gridlock has prevented our nation from dealing effectively with many crucial problems.
So how might Christians contribute to improving our situation?
For Christians who take Jesus at all seriously, love and humility must be important in their political engagement.
Jesus’ command to love our neighbors—all of them, even enemies—should be a fundamental premise for Christian political engagement. Love of course is an action verb, not a feeling. It means treating all people, even our most difficult political opponents as persons made in the image of God, as persons loved immeasurably by God.
Our first most fundamental stance toward all those we engage (both as supporters and opponents) in politics must be that these persons are persons so loved by our Trinitarian God that the Son of God would die on the cross for them and invite them to live forever with Him.
That kind of love, of course, requires truthfulness and civility.
Christian politicians and voters must have a passion for truth. Sadly, politicians often tell lies—half lies and whole lies. Christians know that God hates lies—and also that lying in politics is bad for democracy. Christians should demand honesty from all politicians.
And if politicians claim to be Christians, then we should be especially strong in condemning any dishonesty in their actions. In fact, this year, prominent evangelical leaders have done precisely that in public condemnation of unChristian political behavior. And all of us should listen carefully to their critiques as we reflect on how to vote.
It is easy to go online to Politifact (they won a Pulitzer Prize) or Factcheck. Responsible fact-checking organizations like these can quickly tell you whether what a politician says is true.
And we should take great care to be truth-tellers ourselves. Before forwarding an email about a candidate or governmental official’s position on a topic or some other piece of information meant to demean or attack the person, we should fact-check to make sure we are being truth-bearers.
Loving our neighbor also requires a passion for civility. If just the Christians in politics would embrace a passion for civility as they engage in politics we would change the tone of U.S. politics. Biblical faith calls us to respect every person—no matter how much we disagree with them—because every person is made in the image of God and is loved by God.
Humility is not a typical virtue of politicians, although in the 2015-2016 campaign, one person has claimed to be the most humble person in the world. Two things, however, ought to encourage Christians in politics to embrace humility.
First, we are finite. And second, we are still sinners.
Every person is finite—our knowledge and understanding are extremely limited. We can never know—not even the best informed politician can know—all that is relevant to understand any situation. We must always act on partial knowledge. And the information we do have will always be less than fully accurate. We must act on the information we have, but knowing that it is partial, incomplete, and also partially biased, should lead us to think and act with humility.
Furthermore, we are still sinners—even the most sanctified Christian engaged in politics. We are constantly tempted to slant the facts, to provide distorted data and questionable arguments to make our platform or actions look better than they really are.
As we look back in history, we see that even the greatest theologians and politicians—Augustine, Luther, Lincoln—made huge mistakes. We should assume that we are making mistakes at least as big as the ones they made. And that realization should add some humility to our actions.
That does not mean that Christian political candidates or Christian voters must be constantly uncertain about their political convictions and statements. But it does mean that we should have an understanding that our political views are partial and tinged with self-interest and therefore we should listen carefully to those who disagree with us—and be ready to change them if presented with new relevant information.
I noted earlier that our society is mired in dangerous political gridlock. There is no quick solution for that.
But I do think that Christian congregations might be one place where we could model a better way forward. Could we not discover new ways to model honest and civil discussion—precisely on political issues—in our local Christian congregations? Civility demands that we truly listen to those we disagree with so that we genuinely understand what they are saying.
The great Catholic theologian, John Courtney Murray has said that most debates seldom reach the high level of genuine disagreement. Usually, the opponents are simply talking past each other.
I want to suggest that our Christian congregations would be an excellent place to model that kind of debate. Every local congregation could decide to form a “study-discussion” group focused on political engagement. The group should include Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. If your congregation is entirely Republican, then partner with a neighboring church with different more progressive views. And of course vice versa. Every person who joins the group should promise to listen carefully to each person’s views and arguments. (One rule should be to regularly rephrase the other person’s views and then ask if that is what they truly mean to say.)
If holding the group during a presidential election, each group could research the platforms and behavior of the presidential candidates and then compare their overall platform (and also what one can reasonably expect them to try and implement if elected!) with the balanced biblical agenda of the National Association of Evangelicals’ For the Health of the Nation.
After vigorously—and with truth and civility—arguing for different positions, each group could pray together asking God to guide their advocacy and election outcomes since we humans can only “see through a glass darkly.”
We are privileged to live in a democracy where every person has a vote and the people (at least theoretically) can decide who will be our political leaders. But democracy only works well if citizens are informed and thoughtful and if politicians are honest and civil.
America has urgent problems that require political decisions. Tragically, the lack of honest, civil political dialogue has produced dangerous gridlock. But Christians and local churches can model civil, honest political dialogue and debate across genuine political disagreements. By doing this, we might even encourage our politicians to embrace a new era of honest, civil political discussion.
Ronald J. Sider is Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry, and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary and President Emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action. A widely known evangelical speaker and writer, Sider has spoken on six continents, published more than thirty books and scores of articles. In 1982, The Christian Century named him one of the twelve “most influential persons in the field of religion in the U.S.” His Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (6th ed., 2015) was recognized by Christianity Today as one of the one hundred most influential religious books of the twentieth century and named the seventh most influential book in the evangelical world in the last fifty years. His more recent books include I Am not a Social Activist, Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement, The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment and Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. Among his other publications are: Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America, and Churches That Make a Difference: Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works (with Phil Olson and Heidi Unruh). Sider was the publisher of PRISM magazine and a contributing editor of Christianity Today for twenty years. He is a contributing editor of Sojourners. He has lectured at scores of colleges and universities around the world, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford. In 2014, he received the William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice from Yale Divinity School.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.