What’s Good About Politics?

Over the past several years, we've all become aware of more ways in which politics makes us worse. But how does politics make us better?

In This Episode…

  • 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.

  • Rev. Charles Drew is a member of the Executive Board of the Center for Christian Civics and pastor emeritus of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in New York City, an evangelical church with a particular focus on Columbia Univeristy, nearby schools, and the local poor. He is the author of several books, including Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew? and The Ancient Love Song: Finding Christ in the Old Testament. He and his wife live and minister in New York City.

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The Center for Christian Civics hosts classes, events and workshops throughout the country equipping Christians to be a positive influence on the public square. At the time of publication, our next workshop will be taking place in Washington, DC. Visit our events page to learn how to register, or follow us on Facebook to see a short excerpt from the class via livestream.

TRANSCRIPT

If you’re following our work, the next couple months are going to be pretty exciting: We’ll be announcing a bunch of upcoming events, rolling out some brand new resources, and publishing a new batch of blog articles and podcast episodes, starting with this one.

One of the things we’ll be doing in this next batch of episodes is introducing you to a few more members of the Christian Civics executive board, giving you a chance to hear from more of the people who are steering this ministry.

This week, I’ll be talking with Pastor Charles Drew. When my co-founder and I first started thinking about the project that ended up becoming this ministry, Pastor Drew was one of the first people we reached out to. He had been a pastor for several decades at that point, and had written an excellent book called Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew? I sat down with pastor drew recently to discuss why he got involved with the Center for Christian Civics, what prompted him to first write and teach about Christianity and politics, and where he’s seen the church navigate that intersection well throughout his years in ministry. Let’s cut to that conversation now, and then we’ll come back together for a quick re-cap and prayer.

Interview

Rev. Charles Drew: I served three churches in the course of my career. One in Charlottesville, Virginia, where UVA is. One in Stony Brook, Long Island, where the State University of New York at Stony Brook is. And then finally in New York City, in a church which was a daughter church of Redeemer, next to Columbia University on the upper west side of Manhattan. I retired in June of 2017, and presently I teach seminarians and I teach continuing ed with pastors, and I am involved in the Center for Christian Civics. And I’m doing some writing, and I’m doing a bunch of preaching.

Rick Barry:  Last year Danny and I recorded a long conversation about the history of Center for Christian Civics, and one of the things that baffled us was why you got involved with us. What made you decide (A) on the mission, and (B) on this being the outlet for the mission you were going to put yourself behind? Because we were aware of you and a book you had written on faith and politics that we both loved, but we were fairly new and unproven. So why on earth did you say yes?

Charles: Well, I got involved with you, first of all, because you came after me, and went out of your way to come to New York, and chat with me about what you were aiming to do. And as we interacted about what you were aiming to do, I felt a kind of a fire kindled in me, particularly for the part of the ministry which is concerned about helping the church to be a sociological surprise. My book was about that. I thought the book, the initial version of the book, was a primer on Christian civic and social responsibility. But what it really was, was a book about how the church manages its own interior life when there are different points of view on how to love our neighbors as ourselves. And in talking with you all, and noting what you were concerned about, I was happy to come on board your executive board.

Rick: I read the first edition of your book probably 10 years after you wrote it and it’s one of only two books I’ve ever read that made me think, “This was a book I wanted to write!” And the thing that really caught me by surprise was, those topics were starting to seem pretty important to me for the continued life and health and witness of the church after the 2008 election and after the healthcare debates. But you had written it at least eight years earlier, before a big glut of books exploring Christianity and politics from every which angle. What first made you, as a pastor, convinced that this was a book you needed to write and that needed to written from a pastor’s point of view?

Charles: What drove me to do it was my experience as a pastor. I was ordained in 1981, and so I was around during the rise of the religious right, and I saw two things happening: On the one hand, an excitement among Christians over the notion that they actually could have influence, and that they really should have influence. However, along with that came what I would call a theocratic impulse—this idea that influence equals control.

I was finding in my own church a lot of pressure beginning to mount with reference to that control issue. There were some people who were saying to me, “Charlie, you need to really say something from the pulpit very strongly about X, Y or Z.” And some other people were reacting against that and saying, “No, no, no. You mustn’t.”

Well, I was having a problem with both!

The people who were saying, “Don’t do anything!” were the people who didn’t have enough of a vision for the fact that Christians need to love their neighbors as themselves need to be salt and light in the culture. They can’t just withdraw into pietism.

But the people on the other side were making lots of assumptions about what they saw to be the only way in which Christians could express their responsibility.

Rick: Since you first published your book on faith and politics, you did a second edition of it.  When you look at the first edition of your book, and you look at the pastors in training that you’re teaching now, or you look at where your congregation was in the last months before you retired from the pulpit, where have you seen the church do well, and what do you think we need to be cautious of?

Charles: I think what’s been good in the church is the growing engagement with cultural, social and political responsibility. I think that’s good. And there’s been a lot of thinking about it, a lot of conversation about it. And I think when Jesus says we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves he means it. And that means we cannot withdraw. So that’s good. Where I’m concerned is that, and I don’t have hard data on this, but my observation is that the church has tended to fragment more and more along political lines.

The church, in its diversity, has tended to be indistinguishable from the culture in its diversity and its stridency. Either there’s been churches blowing up, or there have been churches self-selecting into one political point of view over the other, so that it’s perfectly safe and okay to talk about politics at church, because everybody who’s there is going to agree with you. Or there are churches which are sort of “big tents,” which are trying very hard to stay together. Those churches tend to be afraid of having conversations with one another.

I have felt a real need to help churches, especially the “big tent” sort of churches, to be less afraid, to find out how they can talk with each other honestly and still have the Lord’s supper together. That, to me, is not just nice. That, to me, is strategic for the mission of the church in a polarized culture.

Rick: You used the phrase earlier, “sociological surprise.” Anyone who’s been to one of our classes or events has probably heard echoes of that in the way we talk about why it’s important for local congregations to be politically diverse. But for the vast majority of people listening to this who haven’t had the chance to be at one of our events yet, can you explain a little bit more about what you mean when you say that?

Charles: Well, first of all, the reason why I want it to be that way is because I think that’s what Jesus wants. I mean, Jesus died to break down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile—and that was about as strident a division as you could imagine in the first century! It’s more strident, I can imagine, than what we’re able to find between Republicans and Democrats, and Jesus’s cross broke that down. Jesus’s prayers are that we should be one, as he and the Father are one, so that the world might know that Jesus is the one who the Father has sent.

In other words: in a relativistic age, where everything is up for grabs in terms of who the Messiah is and what’s religiously true or not, how wonderful it would be if the people who say they identify with Jesus could somehow demonstrate a quality of relationship with one another which was absolutely honest, in which they really did disagree, because people do disagree, and yet safe, so that the sociological surprise could happen. The pundits, the sociological observers of Christian churches, say, “I know what Christians are. They’re X. They’re Y. They’re manipulatable along political lines. They’re predictable along political lines.” I want the church to blow that view out of the water by its capacity to manage its differences.

Rick: Our friend and board chair, Ben O’Dell, he’s talked to you about the time during the 2016 primaries when he pulled into the parking lot of his church, and right next to each other in front of him was a car with a Ben Carson bumper sticker and a car with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker. And he had this moment where he says, “This is an example of what it would be great for our church to be able to be.” A place where they’re not needing to deny their enthusiasms or their approaches to policy, but they can also live shoulder-to-shoulder being robustly who they are.

Charles:  And I think people are hungry for this. I’ve done seminars with you, but I’ve also done a number of ones called “Turning Down the Political Heat at Church,” and in those seminars I’ve made the case for why it needs to be done, and I’ve given why the political heat needs to be turned down. And I’ve also given some tools to people to help them to do it, and then given them opportunities to do it. And over and over and over again the feedback I get, the testimonies I get from people is, “Holy mackerel! I never could have believed that I could’ve had the conversation that I just had. I’ve been afraid for years to have the sorts of conversations that I just had at this seminar. And I am so surprised and so grateful.” And when I hear that I’m very, very happy.

Rick: You were saying that the divide between Jew and Gentile in the time of the New Testament is probably about as big a sociological divide as there is, and part of the goal of the church should be to bridge those kinds of divides now. And while I agree with you and I’m on board, and obviously you’re a part of the steering committee for this organization, one question that raises for me is that the divide between Jew and Gentile was a divide of family and ethnicity and religion. One group was the unique people of God, and the other was the rest of the world that God wasn’t working through to bring redemption to everyone. Part of breaking down the divide between Jew and Gentile could be seen as Israel finally completing the training phase of its mission, and needing to actually now go into the purpose they were set apart for, that God called out when he called Abraham. “I will bless you so that you can be a blessing to the rest of the world.” And breaking down that divide was the process of finally metastasizing its blessing and getting to a point where they are now giving that blessing to the rest of the world.

Whereas the divide between Republican and Democrat can be seen as (and a lot of Republicans and Democrats would argue that it is) a different kind of division—one of morality, philosophy, responsibility, or some other virtue. If a Christian believes very strongly that the Republican platform is more in line with biblical values, why should they be reconciled to the people that they think are a less Christian party?

Charles: What I would do is help them to make some distinctions, which I talk about in my book. One of them is between moral principal and political strategy. I think the mistake that people often make on the left and the right is that they equate a particular strategy for nudging the culture in a certain moral direction. They equate that with a moral principle and believe that to deny the political strategy is to deny the moral principal.

But I would say no.

I think we have to be much more careful in our thinking, much more nuanced in our thinking. And we need each other, on the left and the right, to help each other to distinguish between when we’re talking about a moral principal and when we’re talking about a political strategy whose aim is to nudge things in the direction of greater conformity to that principal. The minute you make that distinction and you help people to make that distinction, it becomes less a battle about God versus the devil. It becomes more like a question of wisdom. What does wisdom dictate for us to do as we try to, say, reduce abortions, or make marriages stronger, or deal with problems with the environment? Redistribute wealth or give freedom to people to exercise their own sovereignty over their wealth?

Politics and political solutions are blunt instruments, and we have to face that. We have to face that even the most carefully-crafted political solution is always going to leave things out, compromise certain moral principles for the sake of overemphasizing others.

Rick:  Or even appropriately emphasizing some at the sake of others.

Charles:  Exactly. And so you may come away in a conversation still convinced that your particular solution is better, morally speaking, in terms of its moral outcomes, than that of another person, but you come away humbly, and because you’ve had enough humility, hopefully, to have the nuanced conversation that you have to have. And hopefully, perhaps even you come away with the solution that neither of you had when you first started talking. And that can contribute to breaking down the polarizations of the culture and bringing solutions into the culture. I’m a realist about the church. I don’t think the church is perfect. I don’t think church is going to be perfect until the Lord Jesus comes back, but I think the church has the Holy Spirit, and the church has the love, and the church has the wisdom of the spirit as well as the love of the spirit. And so there’s potential that if churches learn how to really talk to each other, if Christians really learn how, they may come up with some political solutions that nobody thought of which are actually really helpful. Not perfect, but helpful.

Rick: There are a lot of people who say that politics is inherently corruptive, or that the nature of politics and public life right now is so polarized and so toxic that it can’t help but have a negative influence on your spiritual health. I want to ask the opposite question: What are some of the virtues that it’s harder to get access to outside of being a more engaged citizen? Some of the Christian virtues, some of the positive directions of spiritual formation that engaging with politics or government or political life actually make easier for you as a Christian?

Charles: One virtue is humanization. In other words, seeing, believing, fully embracing the fact that you’re always dealing with creatures made in the image of God. That’s an enormous one. It seems to me that the people that we engage with, whether it’s across the aisle in church or it’s across the aisle in government, they’re made in the image of God. They are not the incarnation of their political positions. And Christians need to believe that in their bones,  we need as Christians to believe in our bones the notion that the person we’re facing, we’re talking to across the aisle is not the incarnation of his or her particular politics, but is rather a creature made in the image of God, destined for glory, someone who we may be together with forever, and we need to remember that. I think that’s a virtue.

Another virtue is hope. Hope with respect to the promises of Christ that he is ruling now, and his rule will be perfected, and that we’re not doing a very perfect job along the way, but we’re pressing forward. We’re not giving up. We’re continuing to learn. We’re humbly apologizing. We’re doing whatever we need to do in order to advance things in a good way. And we’re able to do that because we have hope.

Prayer

Our Lord and King,

You carried us into this time and this place on purpose. You’ve called us as you call people in every time and place to live in contrast to the world around us for the sake of making your promises, your character and the culture of your kingdom understood. 

Thank you for the ways in which we still have to get better at this, especially where politics is concerned. Help us to celebrate the fact that we still have so many ways in which we could be doing better, because it means there are still many opportunities ahead of us to experience your love, your encouragement and your faithfulness to do what you’ve promised in our lives, in our communities and in our world. 

Help us turn our churches into bodies where there is no man or woman, Jew or Greek, Carson supporter or Bernie Bro, ideologue or cynic, but all are living out your promise that whomever is found in Christ is grafted into the body of a new person, working together to spread your blessing in a broken world until you bring it in full.

We pray these things in the name of your son, the new man you’ve ordained to institute that kingdom,

 

Amen

 

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