Political tension in America is not new. Polarization, anger, and hostility have, to some extent, been part of our politics and culture for centuries. In the presidential election of 1800, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s supporters accused John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adam’s advocates responded just as vulgarly, calling Jefferson a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” However, the state of our public discourse seems particularly poor today. Overwhelmed by social media and the 24/7 news cycle, many Americans—including some Christians—aren’t sure how they should navigate the treacherous political waters of our time. This begs the question: What does Christlike political engagement look like? How can we dialogue with others in a way that honors God?
Why We Engage in Politics
God’s top two commandments—to love Him and love others—convey His priorities for us (Mark 12:30-31). Affirming human dignity is not a secondary task for the believer but an integral part of the Christian life. “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory. “…[I]t is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics” (p.45-46). Because of our deep love for God and others, we must fight to put the interests of others above our own (Philippians 2:4). We must also promote human flourishing by ensuring all people have the opportunities, resources, and relationships they need to thrive materially, socially, and spiritually. Faithful political participation is one way we can help our neighbors become all that God created them to be.
When we abstain from politics, however, we choose not to engage many of the real social and economic injustices affecting people today. As people of the Word, we must seek the salvation of individuals, the welfare of their communities, and the rectification of this world’s unjust, oppressive institutions. Jesus’ ministry was characterized by passionate preaching and radical acts of mercy and grace (Luke 24:19; Matthew 4:23). Ours should be as well. The Lord has ordained governments to honor upstanding citizens (1 Peter 2:14) and “avenge” those who have been wronged by punishing wrongdoers (1 Peter 2:14; Romans 13:4). As citizens of the United States, we live, not under an emperor with absolute power, but in a democracy where we yield to authority while wielding authority. For the American Christian, political participation is not optional. It is a means of blessing for our communities. We should not take this responsibility lightly. God gives us the freedom to engage in this way, and He expects us to make the most of it (Luke 12:48).
How We Engage in Politics
Because we participate in politics to affirm the dignity of others, the way we conduct ourselves in the public square should reflect this goal. When discussing political matters, believers are “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2 ESV). Some issues in the Bible are “straight-line” issues—issues on which there is a “straight line” from a passage of Scripture to a specific policy solution. In these instances, the position is not informed by personal opinion, but handed to us by God Himself. However, many injustices we see and experience every day—poverty, racism, and others—are considered “jagged-line” issues. God’s Word gives us a clear moral obligation to do something about these injustices, but it does not clearly outline how they should be solved.
As a result, even when ultimate goals are shared, faithful Christians can, and often do, differ on their preferred political strategy and solution. When this happens, we are to, in accordance with the Golden Rule, give other believers the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good (Matthew 7:12, 1 Corinthians 13:7). The world around us has been torn apart by self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Suspicion and cynicism reign, leaving wrecked relationships and fragmented communities in their wake. In contrast, Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are to approach other believers “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3). We must remember that fellow believers are brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers (1 Timothy 5:1-2 ESV). They are not enemies to be defeated or sinners to be “converted” to our worldview.
This is the beauty of the gospel message—it gives us the confidence to stand firm in our convictions, as well as the humility to respect, listen to, and empathize with other people. When we embrace the power of the Holy Spirit, we learn to love all who bear God’s image and embrace believers who disagree with us on “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1 NIV). When Christ becomes more precious than influence, we learn to love even our enemies and to serve and pray for those who persecute us and wish us harm (Matthew 5:44). When we cling to the Lord instead of our political ideology, we can preach a gospel that transcends the partisan divide. While we do have a Christian duty to seek justice for our neighbors through faithful political engagement, our ultimate loyalty must lie with Christ—our true strength, our safest refuge, and the horn of our salvation (Psalm 18:1-2). He and His Word must serve as the cornerstone for our speech and our activism.
As we approach the climax of the 2020 election season, it is all but certain we will find ourselves in uncomfortable, awkward, and even heated conversations in our workplaces, on the Internet, and around the dining room table. Some of us will be tempted to check out from (or even avoid) politics entirely, deciding it isn’t worth our time. Others will jump in too quickly, eager to force others into adopting their positions.
In both instances, we fail to love and affirm the dignity of our friends, neighbors, and vulnerable members of our communities. “Human dignity must be at the heart of our Christian lives,” writes Daniel Darling in The Dignity Revolution, “because it is at the heart of the gospel story” (p.16). To love God and love others is to live like Jesus—entering difficult conversations with truth and love, ever aware that people in our churches, in our communities, and behind our screens bear the image of God, the almighty King of the Universe.
We cannot allow the issues of this world to tear apart the family of God. As the body of Christ—the very hands and feet of Jesus—we must live and move as one. We worship God, fight injustice, and pursue flourishing better when we do it together. In all that we do, we must, as theologian Rupertus Meldenius first wrote in 1626, “keep in necessary things Unity, in unnecessary things Freedom, and in both Charity …” If we approach politics in this way, he writes, “our affairs would certainly be in the best condition.”