Litmus Tests Fail the Test

Many sincerely devout, thoughtful Christians whom I respect have been writing articles intended to help you come to conclusions about what your faith means for the way you vote in this year’s US presidential election. And I sincerely fear that these articles are going to compromise your ability to share the gospel effectively. Many of them begin with a biblical virtue or Christian value, and then argue a direct line from that value to a political policy. But political litmus tests like these can lead to an impoverished demonstration of Christian faith in two important ways, one obvious and one not:

One of Our Favorite Phrases

The Christian faith is a sending faith, a missionary faith, a faith that calls adherents to be sacrificially outward-facing. Every member of Christ’s church is likely involved in making Jesus’ truth known and mercy felt in some kind of practical way in the world around us. But not every member of the church is a missionary. Only some members of the church deliver food to the homebound. Still other members, but not all, regularly spend their weekends visiting prisoners, or their evenings caring for foster children, or their days tending to their homeless neighbors.

The choices for how to represent Christ in the world are nearly infinite, but our flesh is decidedly finite. And so, our contemporary Christian culture often encourages us to dedicate our time and energy to the small handful of passions God has given us or opportunities he has opened up for us in particular ways.

This is, of course, okay. The Bible describes us each as different members of Christ’s body, with different functions. When someone feels compelled to pack up their life and move overseas to preach the gospel in a Middle Eastern nation, we don’t typically accuse him of lacking Christ’s compassion for America’s homeless. Instead, we say he “has a heart for the Middle East.” Similarly, it is probably okay for a Christian who has spent time volunteering for Doctors Without Borders in sub-Saharan Africa to be moved by a candidate who spends time arguing for increased foreign aid to that region. It may not be a sign of that Christian’s godlessness as much as it could be a result of the heart God has given her.

Single-issue litmus tests—the kinds of statements that declare that “all Christians” should vote a certain way because of a particular policy position—tend to assume that it isn’t possible for God to burden different peoples’ hearts with different concerns. Just as we are comfortable with God equipping some people to open their homes to pregnant teens who have no other means of support while he equips others to offer job skills to men leaving prison, we may need to be comfortable accepting that those experiences may lead those people’s votes to be swayed by different issues.

Uncovering Your Middle Layer

The more subtle danger lurking within the kinds of litmus tests we often see during election years is that they encourage Christians to neglect exercising wisdom and discernment.

When someone argues a straight line from biblical principle to public policy, they are actually skipping over an important “mediating layer.” Between your faith in Christ and your political affiliation are a whole host of other beliefs and assumptions. These include, but are not limited to, the assumptions you make about the way other people will think and behave; the goals you have for the role of your state within the country and your country within the world; and the vision you’ve developed for how your faith should relate to the government in a representative democracy. You can hold historical orthodox Christian faith, but the life experiences and the (often-unstated) beliefs that constitute your “middle layer” have a tremendous and inescapable influence on what you think about politics and government.

Political litmus tests typically assume that the only valid middle layer, the only valid relationship between a Christian and the government in a representative democracy, is for Christians to attempt to use the government to get our neighbors to comply with God’s vision for the City on a Hill. That’s not an inherently evil position. In fact, many saints who will be glorified at the resurrection have held that position and done so lovingly. But it’s not the only valid approach, and many Americans at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb probably won’t have held it.

A Confounding Church

It’s important for Christians to be engaged in the world around us. We’re supposed to be the “salt of the earth,” and there’s no way for salt to be beneficial unless it is scattered across and deeply mixed into the things being salted. But as we engage with the world, we must always guard against conforming to it. When he walked the earth, Jesus confounded the religious authorities, the political rulers, the cultural tastemakers and the evangelical zealots of his time. When he sent his Holy Spirit to empower his people to follow him, they formed a spiritual community where men and women, Jews and Greeks, free men and slaves all shared their lives together, willingly declaring themselves “one in Christ Jesus.”

In a climate of extreme polarization, we must guard against our churches conforming to the political segregation of our culture. For our congregations to confound, they should be places where our friends and neighbors see liberals and libertarians, Republicans and Democrats, Bush supporters and Bernie supporters embracing and encouraging one another

This is difficult. A body of believers—whether that body is a church, a small group, a campus fellowship, or a workplace Bible study—can only embody this kind of radical fellowship, this kind of communion that defies the surrounding antagonisms, if it’s already being practiced in the lives of its members. But drawing lines in the sand that don’t allow for other Christians to exercise their best wisdom in figuring out how to understand their “middle layer,” or that demand that your brothers and sisters pattern their hearts after yours, hinders our ability to understand the oneness we are called to by Christ.

So, this week and weekend, try to find some time to pray something along the following lines:

Heavenly Father, you sent your son, Jesus, to serve as your image and your word. Looking to you, listening to you, following you, he could not conform to the political divisions, antagonisms and parties of his time. By the power of your Spirit, help me to cling fast to the truth that Jesus’ sacrifice, resurrection and eventual return mean that I can safely welcome people who disagree with me into my life. I’m sorry for the times I’ve tried in my heart to get my security and satisfaction from holding the “right” political views because of my faith, instead of from the love and flourishing that was guaranteed for me when your Son rose from the dead. Help me to demonstrate the power and beauty of this good news when I interact with people who disagree with me, for the sake of your Son’s name and glory. Amen.

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  • Rick Barry is Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, where he helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

3 Responses

  1. Great article!

    "For our congregations to confound, they should be places where our friends and neighbors see liberals and libertarians, Republicans and Democrats, Bush supporters and Bernie supporters embracing and encouraging one another"

    I would love to hear you flesh out how to encourage Trump supporters.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Ryan.

      On Friday, we’ll be running a new writer’s personal-experience article about riots, Trump and empathy. Would you mind telling me a little bit more about what you mean by encouraging Trump supporters?

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