For a generation or more, a lot of people like me—that is, Christians who, whether we use the term or not, fit into the broad category of “evangelical”—assumed that the best way our ancient faith could speak to our modern politics was through the framework of culture war. The thinking was that, because our political process was mainly divided into two opposing camps, the way to engage politics was to endorse one camp and work with them against the other.
This approach offered the church real benefits. It provided a frame of reference through which Christians could begin the daunting task of becoming politically informed. It also meant that we could look to our partisan allies as clear-cut, easy-to-follow models for how to practice civic engagement. There was no need to reinvent the wheel—we could just join in the kinds of rallies, protests and campaigning that were already happening. Eventually, advocacy groups like Family Research Council (on the right) and SoJourners (on the left) emerged, giving us versions of these practices that even used explicitly Christian vocabularies.
But the culture war approach also has real shortcomings that compromise our prophetic witness to the public square. By “choosing sides” in a dualistic, zero-sum, either/or battle, we became likely to assume a one-to-one correlation between our partisan allies and our community of faith: In a single week in 2004, I was told at two different Bible study meetings, “Christians really shouldn’t vote Republican,” and, “You can’t be a Christian and vote for a Democrat.” This makes it hard for people who don’t share our faith to understand that our faith is something that transcends our politics.
We also frequently fail to properly contend with the fact that our political system’s moral frameworks are not as nuanced as our faith’s. Christianity generally claims that people are good but fallen, simultaneously reflecting and distorting God’s image. But our partisan process is prone to something akin to Manichaeism, treating one side as pure good and the other as pure ill. Too often, in our efforts to win, we turn blind eyes to our allies’ ills while willfully discounting the ways in which our opponents might be good.
As Americans who want our faith in Christ to shape every dimension of our lives in ways that are both challenging and attractive to the non-Christians around us, we have to strive for a more robust understanding of politics and government while elected officials and political operatives try to keep us satisfied with thin, self-serving narratives. One of the first things we will need to do as we begin to embark upon this project together is to consider some of the spiritual fallacies (many churches call them “idolatries”) that led us to the traps of the culture wars in the first place. I’d like to point out four especially pernicious ones that have wreaked havoc on our witness in the civic square.
The first is tribalism, the tendency to award excessive loyalty and trust to people who are like ourselves. It leaves us more likely to believe a lie from an ally than a truth from an opponent. Tribalism also leads us to excuse or explain away the failings of people who are “on our team” while tenaciously attacking the same failings in people on “the other side:” Democrats were sure that Mark Sanford’s adultery scandal proved that there was something rotten or hypocritical at the heart of the Republican party; Republicans refused to believe that Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal was just an outlier among Democrats.
The next is triumphalism, an implicit belief that everyone’s flourishing and well-being depends on my candidate getting elected or on my party’s success. Triumphalism tends to ignore the fact that we are all fallen, even our partisan allies, and that our wisdom and perspective is limited. Our faith teaches us that the fall had noetic effects, that we only see the world “through a glass dimly.” Yet triumphalism convinces us of the lie that our approach to politics accounts for every eventuality, that there’s no possible way circumstances might be different from what we expect. People with different ideas, different perspectives or even more recent information aren’t to be trusted, and they aren’t loyal opposition—they’re either accidentally ignorant or willfully malicious. Triumphalism replaces conversation with debate, and it replaces collaboration with either victory or defeat. Even more frighteningly, our claims that a better kingdom is coming are made less credible if we seem to think that ultimate good can be achieved with political victory here and now.
Third, we have to confront our latent monarchism, our impulse to forget that we already have a Good and Gracious King. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel rejecting God’s federal headship and demanding that he provide them with “a king like all the other nations.” The New Testament claims that Jesus fills the role of King himself. And today, Christians in the US find themselves placed by God in a country whose government is designed to stymie anyone who aspires to kingly authority. It’s natural and good to want wise, upstanding stewardship of government, but we must guard ourselves against indulging a concept of government that views our elected officials as monarchs and gives them the responsibilities God entrusted to us when he placed us here. Knowing that Jesus lives and reigns should make us more active in our communities as his hands and feet, less likely to leave anyone alone with the burden of promoting flourishing in our cities and towns.
Lastly we must guard against cynicism. The Christian Left and the Christian Right were never the church’s only factions in the culture wars. There were some conscientious objectors, dissatisfied with both options and holding out hope for a morally purer one. And there were the cynics, who thought the whole civic system was morally corrupting, or that the political and governmental dimensions of life were somehow beyond the scope of God’s love. If we become uncomfortable in our partisan camps, most of us will be tempted to either switch sides (where we would still deal with tribalism, triumphalism and monarchism) or throw our lot in with the cynics and withdraw from civic engagement altogether.
To categorically withdraw from engaging with the civic arena means passing up the opportunity to make the meaning of the gospel visible to people who don’t yet know it. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. Adherents are implicated in God’s mission of making his light and goodness felt in every corner of the world. We’re not called to stay in our enclaves, hoping that the people who would most relish Jesus’ freedom and comfort find their way to us. From Abraham through Moses to the apostles, the story of our faith is the story of people being charged by God to go into unexpected places and demonstrate the difference he makes in their lives. Cynicism looks at the public square and says that the Christian faith has nothing to offer it. It looks with condescension at people who ask questions at town hall meetings or who ask to meet with their state representative’s staffers or who try to understand how the decisions of the local school board affect their neighbors.
These four idolatries aren’t just bad discipleship—they are also bad citizenship. Our political system was built to work best when the people who most directly steer the machine of government are supervised by and responsible toward an active and engaged citizenry. God placed us in a country that is designed to function best when it doesn’t have a king or an aristocracy running things, that implicates its citizens in selecting and firing or re-hiring government officials, that forces those officials to work productively with colleagues who disagree with them. As we think about what the prophet Jeremiah’s command to seek the well-being of the society into which God has called us means, we can’t ignore the civic mechanisms of that society or how they are structured.