My journey into the intersection of faith and politics began in Texas.
I would describe Texas as a conservative and religious state (although I would characterize that religion as often being more cultural than spiritual). That worked for me, though: As I went off to college, a Christian who was just beginning to understand the gospel, I was fairly conservative myself. In fact, I still am. But, like most people that age, I was also far too arrogant in any and all of my beliefs.
I believed then, and still do, that being Christian should impact all of life, including my politics.
Unfortunately, I also believed that faith in Jesus must produce particular political positions and allegiance to a particular party. Failure to hold the right politics was a rejection of Christianity. This is the story of the first time that belief was challenged.
My roommate and I, ill-equipped as we were, led a Bible study with a small group of boys (I could hardly describe us as men at that time). Most of the attendees had some exposure to the gospel, usually limited to what I will call “cultural Christianity. “
One friend in the group was quite politically liberal and very intelligent. At the time, I was under the illusion that eloquence was the most important factor in sharing the gospel. So, I convinced him to attend a popular campus ministry that had an engaging speaker.
Unfortunately, the night we attended, the regular speaker was out, replaced by a local conservative Christian talk show host. He proceeded to warm up the crowd with a somewhat sexist joke (and if a conservative 20-year-old boy in Texas in the 90s thought it was somewhat sexist, it was probably incredibly sexist). Not a great start.
He went on to discuss a laundry list of politically conservative positions and correlated them with being a Christian. With each new topic, my liberal friend next to me squirmed just a little more in his seat. By the end of the night, my friend bounded out of the room before I could get two words in.
As I wandered into the evening with a fellow conservative Christian friend who was left equally troubled, we spent several hours talking. We ended with two conclusions, then quite radical for my understanding of the world:
The first was that, while at that time I did not disagree with any of the speaker’s political positions, the speaker had just loaded the gospel with a pile of pre-conditions. The message my liberal friend heard that night was, “To be a Christian you must hold these political views.” The Good News is supposed to be that you can approach the cross just as you are—no matter what your conclusion about capital gains taxes may be. My friend could have changed his mind about every topic the speaker brought up that night, repented of all of his “liberal apostasy,” without ever taking a step closer to the cross. Moralism and legalism can make for effective politicking, but they are poison in the church.
The second conclusion, which I will certainly have to be reminded of for the rest of my days, is that idols are not just little gold statues, but are actually anything on earth you hold too tightly—even political opinions you reached through sound biblical reasoning. Relying on anything other than the cross to provide you with evidence that you’re good, or safe, or in the right will inevitably bring you into conflict with the true King of this world, because that’s the kind of affirmation you’re supposed to get from him.
That experience was the first of many that challenged me to rethink how to serve a heavenly king when I’m engaged in earthly politics. It has helped me to resist—to some degree—the temptation to think of politics as a war that I have to win. It has definitely given me pause in making politics an idol and acted as an antidote to the belief that any political position or electoral success could have some saving power in a person’s life. Politics are important. Elections do matter. But they must always be held in the proper perspective.
Most importantly, it has served as a check on my assumptions about the people I work and interact with. Their value lies in that they are made in God’s image, not in the way they respond to whatever political litmus test I’m most invested in this week, or what position they hold, or how good they are at their job.
That night began a long and continuing journey for me toward wrestling with a central tension, both personally and for the Church body as a whole: How do people who serve a heavenly king engage in earthly politics? Looking over 2000 years of history, the Church and its people have not been very good at resolving it.
And what better place to view that tension up close and personal than working in politics, in the capital of the wealthiest and most influential country in the history of the world?