Praying After Charlottesville

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Praying After Charlottesville

While we understand that one five-minute prayer can not lead anyone through a comprehensive response to this weekend's white supremacist rallies and subsequent violence in Virginia, we do want to offer a jumping-off point for your prayers. More will come in the coming days and weeks, but please start by praying along with us now. (Pastors, ministry leaders and anyone who leads others in prayer are welcomed to use this as you wish.)


Heavenly Father, Great God, Judge of the Universe,

We pray for our country in the wake of today’s violence. Your word tells us that there is a future coming where people of every tribe and tongue will be praising you alongside one another. That is a fact. That is going to happen. And in the wake of demonstrations and violence by people who don’t want to share a country with people who don’t look like them or live like them or share their heritage, it can be easy for us to forget that your future is as real and as solid and as reliable as our present.

No effort on our part seems able to dissolve white supremacy and violent ideologies from our country. Only you can change peoples’ hearts. You hold the King’s heart in your hand, the old testament tells us, and so in a country with 300 million people steering the ship of government together, we ask you to change the hearts of those who are given over to hate and violence. Turn stone hearts into flesh.

And while we pray for you to do what only you can do, we ask you to lead us to the work you would have us do as your hands and feet. You’ve placed us in a country where we each share some of the responsibility of directing and managing the way our society is structured. We confess that we have not always taken that responsibility seriously. You’ve trusted us to use every tool in our lives to make the character of your kingdom seen and felt everywhere in the world around us, but over and over again we’ve avoided wading into parts of life that seem too big, thinking about problems that seem like they’d be too much work, doing things that seem to have too little to do with ourselves, welcoming and engaging with people who seem too different or like too much of a liability or like they would take too much energy.

Give us courage that we might not shy away from hard relationships, or daunting responsibilities. Help us to be positive influences on our communities in every dimension of life. Empower those of us who bear your son’s name, the name Christian, to live lives that shelter the vulnerable, heal the wounded, comfort the afflicted, and reconcile the broken. Help us to ensure that our communities--our churches, our neighborhoods, our towns and our counties--don’t operate according to the word of hatred--in overt ways or even in subtle ways. Help us to make your character manifested in our community’s life.   

We also pray for healing. We pray for comfort for those who lost friends or family or a sense of security this weekend. We know that comfort will likely only come slowly, fitfully and fleetingly.

Many of us are tempted to anger and hatred by what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. Thank you for your assurance that a loving and just God mourns with us, mourns for us and mourns for those we would consider our enemies.

You have reserved vengeance for yourself, and poured out your wrath on your son to reconcile us to you in the face of tragedies like these.Help us to trust deeply enough in the sufficiency of what you’ve done for us through Jesus that our hearts can be moved to compassion by this weekend. Teach us to long for justice--and not to profane the word justice by using it as a synonym for vengeance.

You reconciled broken man to perfect God--please reconcile broken man to broken man.

We pray these things in the name of your son, the perfect man, Jesus Christ.


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Faith, Politics and Persecution (Part Two)

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Faith, Politics and Persecution (Part Two)

We bring in two guests for a follow-up conversation after our interview with D; we briefly look at the difference between government and politics; and pastor Charles Drew leads us in prayer.

Note to ministry leaders: You are welcomed to use any prayers presented in the Christian Civics Podcast when leading your group or congregation in prayer. You can use the prayers as presented, or you can use them as a model/jumping-off point. We'd love to know that you're using them, but letting us know is purely a courtesy and is not necessary.

Additional Reading:

Faith, Politics and Persecution (Part One)
George Washington's Farewell Address
Body Broken: Can Democrats and Republicans Sit in the Same Pew? by Rev. Charles Drew

Additional Notes

Theme music by Sonic Weapon Fence.

The opinions expressed in this podcast by Ben O'Dell are his own and do not reflect the view of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the United States government.

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The Political Theology of the Declaration of Independence

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The Political Theology of the Declaration of Independence

Brian Andrew Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Sarah Morgan Smith is an instructor in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program housed in the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and co-director of the Ashbrook Center’s Religion in American History project.


As we celebrate our nation’s political independence, we would encourage you to actually read the text of the Declaration of Independence for yourself; read it out loud, or better yet, listen to it being read by someone else. In doing so, as this 1783 etching published in Britain near the end of the Revolution illustrates, you will be participating in the oldest of our national traditions: Americans “declared themselves independent” of Great Britain seven years before that independence was official by sketching out not only their grievances against the king, but also the basic principles underlying their political convictions. These, as Thomas Jefferson was careful to point out, were not “new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of,” but “an expression of the American mind.” The Declaration of Independence was central not just to the creation of the separate political entity known as the United States of America, but it did for the country what catechisms do for more traditional churches: it publicly elaborated the country's identity. That identity—grounded neither in blood nor soil but in principle—is what continues to set America apart from the rest of the nations of the world, and it is what makes the Declaration worthy of consideration not merely as an historic document but as a contemporary reminder of what binds us together as a people. As the preeminent statement of America’s core political principles, the Declaration serves as a moral standard: Our public practice both legally and conventionally has often fallen short of its aspirational heights, yet the fact that those aspirations exist at all provides an important standard against which we can measure our politics.

In today’s political climate, it may surprise some of us to learn that the Declaration is a deeply theistic document, one that is as much theological as philosophical. Yet there are four explicit references to God in the text: He is referred to as “Nature’s God” and as the “Creator” in the preamble, and as the “Supreme Judge of the world” and as “Divine Providence” in the final paragraph. In addition to these direct references, there are several additional principles that might be deduced from the central portion of the text, the list of grievances against the king and parliament of Great Britain.

In what follows, we will briefly consider the political theology of the Declaration of Independence, focusing on what we can gleam from this beautifully sparse text about the relationship between faith and the public square. Although the Declaration is not a Christian document, in the sense that it does not mention Jesus or point to any specific biblical revelation for its source of authority, neither is it an anti-Christian document. Rather, its argument grows out of what the natural law teaches: those things we can’t not know, truths so inescapable they can be described as self-evident, that is, not requiring outside evidence to substantiate them.

We begin with the preamble, in which we learn that in the American understanding, Nature is not simply wild and capricious but governed by Laws that are given to it by God. Nature, in this sense, refers not to the natural world simply, so the Laws of Nature cannot be simply things like Newton’s Laws or the gravitational constant. It includes human nature as well. As “Nature’s God,” He has provided an order to the world such that certain things are discernable as good or bad by reason—these are the “Laws of Nature” by which the Americans justify their actions and to which they make their appeal.

Chief among these, of course, are the “self-evident truths” of the second paragraph: that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Note that the American commitment to equality is clearly dependent upon a prior understanding of man as a creature: individual men are equal to one another first in the fact of their subordination to their mutual Creator, and secondly, in their shared possession of particular endowments from the same. As the Creator, God has given us the gift of an unspecified number of unalienable rights, including chief among them the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the peroration of the Declaration, God is once again directly referenced, this time in his capacities as the “supreme judge of the world” and as “Providence.” By referencing God as the Supreme Judge of the world, the Americans once again point to an authority apart from and above themselves. So, based on their understanding of the natural law created by the same authority, those who signed the Declaration believed that a revolution against Great Britain to be not only morally justified but required.

This implies, however, that there are political actions that are morally unjustifiable—even when consented to by legislative majorities or popular votes. We cannot consent to government that does not respect our fundamental rights, or that does not allow us to choose representatives in government. The Declaration’s logic also precludes the elevation of any particular derivative principle (equality, freedom, consent) above the foundational truths about the world as ordered by God, and so suggests that politics ought to be limited not merely by what is possible but by what is right and in accordance with the Laws of Nature. The Declaration’s appeal to God’s role as a judge also implies a belief in a future state of rewards and punishments; that is, in the eternal significance of our actions as citizens.

Finally, by closing the Declaration with an affirmation of their “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” the text makes clear that this first creed of the United States includes an understanding of God as an ongoing, active presence in the world. He offers his protection and intervention in the affairs of men, rewarding them not only in the hereafter, but also in the here and now for the righteousness of their actions.

As far as it goes, the political theology of the Declaration is sound: It correctly identifies our status as created but fallen individuals and suggests that the remedy lies in understanding ourselves as subject to a natural law beyond our own making that compels us to restrain our desire to glorify ourselves at the expense of others. As Christians, however, we know that what the Declaration asks us to do is impossible apart from Christ: We cannot live in peace with our fellow man, respecting his equality and rights, on our own strength. This, after all, is part of why governments exists--to coerce the worst of us, and to coax the rest of us into believing that the costs of breaking that natural law outweigh the benefits.

The political theology of the Declaration then, is partial: It points us in the right direction, but without naming the destination. As those who claim the name of Christ, we ought to ask ourselves how our faith can help us to more fully embrace the aspirational goals of the Declaration. How can we encourage policies—in our homes, our businesses, our schools, and our towns—that enrich the life, liberty, and happiness of those around us? How can we be agents of Providence in politics, bringing light to the harsh shadows of the world around us?

The Declaration of Independence is not only a historical document but continues to be one of the Organic Laws of the United States. Its logic—and the political theology that undergirds it—is at the heart of our national identity and its aspirations continue to shape us as a people.  

Indeed, even the aspirations of the Declaration to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for all citizens point us to the need for something beyond it. The Declaration can only take us as far as a detente between sinners. It cannot, by itself, create community, which is the true heart of political life. As Christians, we ought to strive to bring about the sort of "beloved community" Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of when he applied the principles of the Declaration to the racial and economic injustices of his society. But in so doing, we shouldn’t forget that we are only wayfarers here in this world, and that politics ought not be our defining passion.

The challenge of living in light of the Declaration, though, is that while the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God are written on all of our hearts as self-evident truths, we are not endowed with a precise understanding of exactly how to defend those truths in politics. What it does provide is a starting point for serious discussion about civics and a moral limit to the scope of American politics. Although the Declaration is not specifically Christian, it is compatible with Christianity and in many ways, derivative of the Church’s core teachings about the nature of God and man. We celebrate the Declaration, therefore, not only as a landmark historical document but as a reminder that in America, religion is neither the master nor the slave of politics--rather, faith can be a partner in giving shape to the principles at the core of our national identity.


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Faith, Politics and Persecution (Part One: Overseas)

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Faith, Politics and Persecution (Part One: Overseas)

In part one of a two-part episode, we bring you an interview with "D," a long-term missionary to Bosnia, a formerly socialist country whose political and governmental system is strikingly different from what we usually think of when we think of democracy.

In our next episode, we'll start to draw connections between various parts of this interview and our own public discipleship in the US--please be sure to subscribe to get that second part as soon as it's released.

Our theme music is by Sonic Weapon Fence. Any questions, comments or concerns, please contact us at info@christiancivics.org.


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Photo by Pero Kvrzica, used under Creative Commons.

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From Our Mailing List: George Washington's Farewell Address

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From Our Mailing List: George Washington's Farewell Address

In this week's email to the Christian Civics Mailing List, we recommended that you take some time to read George Washington's Farewell Address (or at least an excerpt from it) and discuss some of its ideas with a friend. You can listen to an actor read the entire speech on YouTube or read the full text of the speech at Yale Law School's website. But if you'd like to skip straight to some of the passages that we recommend thinking about and discussing this month, the passages on partisanism and religion are below.


On Regional Partisanism

In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. The inhabitants of our Western country have lately had a useful lesson on this head; they have seen, in the negotiation by the Executive, and in the unanimous ratification by the Senate, of the treaty with Spain, and in the universal satisfaction at that event, throughout the United States, a decisive proof how unfounded were the suspicions propagated among them of a policy in the General Government and in the Atlantic States unfriendly to their interests in regard to the Mississippi; they have been witnesses to the formation of two treaties, that with Great Britain, and that with Spain, which secure to them everything they could desire, in respect to our foreign relations, towards confirming their prosperity. Will it not be their wisdom to rely for the preservation of these advantages on the Union by which they were procured ? Will they not henceforth be deaf to those advisers, if such there are, who would sever them from their brethren and connect them with aliens?

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable. No alliance, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown. In all the changes to which you may be invited, remember that time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character of governments as of other human institutions; that experience is the surest standard by which to test the real tendency of the existing constitution of a country; that facility in changes, upon the credit of mere hypothesis and opinion, exposes to perpetual change, from the endless variety of hypothesis and opinion; and remember, especially, that for the efficient management of your common interests, in a country so extensive as ours, a government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian. It is, indeed, little else than a name, where the government is too feeble to withstand the enterprises of faction, to confine each member of the society within the limits prescribed by the laws, and to maintain all in the secure and tranquil enjoyment of the rights of person and property.

On General Partisanism

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.

On Religion and Morality

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it, avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment, inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties), ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue, which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it - It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue ? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?


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Health Care, Baseball and Ministering to Capitol Hill

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Health Care, Baseball and Ministering to Capitol Hill

The latest episode of the Christian Civics Podcast features discussion of how our interview with Rev. Charles Garriott of Ministry to State can inform our response to this week's heated health care debate.

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Sanders, Institutions and What We're Supposed to Be About

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Sanders, Institutions and What We're Supposed to Be About

Last week, two big stories about Christians and the Democratic party started circulating on social media: On one hand, a major figure in the party seemed to use an executive branch nominee's faith as a reason to vote against confirming him for work, and on the other hand a number of Christians publicly affirmed their commitment to the Democratic party.

A recent conversation with Dr. Peter Baker helps us understand how those two things might be possible at the same time.

Notes:

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

Articles by Dr. Peter Baker

Bernie Sanders Questions Russel Vought

"Bernie Sanders' Religious Test for Christians in Public Office" from The Atlantic

Our theme music is by Sonic Weapon Fence and is used with permission.

Key image adapted from photography by Michael Vadon, used under Creative Commons 2.0.


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BREAKING: A Response to Today's Violence

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BREAKING: A Response to Today's Violence

In light of today's shootings, including a mass shooting just outside of DC city lines that appears to be politically motivated, we are postponing release of the next episode of our podcast and are instead inviting you to join us in prayer for the victims of these attacks and for the church around the country to make God's healing felt in the aftermath. 

We'd like to thank Rev. Glenn Hoburg, founding pastor of the Grace DC church network, for joining us and leading us in prayer on such short notice. Rev. Hoburg has ministered in DC for 14 years and supports and is known as a support and encouragement to pastors throughout the city.

If you use Google Play Music, Pocket Casts, Tune In or SoundCloud, you can subscribe to our podcast now. If you don't use one of those services, don't worry--we'll be up on the rest of the major services, including iTunes and Stitcher, soon.

If you would like to know when the next episode of our podcast is available or when we are live on all of the major podcast services, please sign up for our mailing list today. 

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The Christian Civics Podcast, Episode One

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The Christian Civics Podcast, Episode One

What does it mean to be holy? How can we demonstrate holiness in our civic lives? And how can we respond in a holy manner to political chaos? 

In the first episode of The Christian Civics Podcast, we'll dive into those questions, including instruction from Rev. Charles Drew, author of Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew?

Articles referenced in this episode or recommended for further reading include:

If this episode was helpful or encouraging to you, please be sure to share it with others. And look for The Christian Civics Podcast on iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or your favorite podcast directory in two weeks!


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Jesus, Socrates, and Historic American Understandings of "Greatness"

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Jesus, Socrates, and Historic American Understandings of "Greatness"

Brian Andrew Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Sarah Morgan Smith is an instructor in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program housed in the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and co-director of the Ashbrook Center’s Religion in American History project.

In his Address to Congress on February 28th, President Trump offered the nation a speech replete with invocations of strength and pride. While not exactly conciliatory, the message did contain moments that aspired to be unifying, most of which were connected to the President's focus on "restoring the nation's greatness" and bolstering national pride. This was in keeping with his rhetoric as a candidate, which emphasized restoring American economic and military greatness. President Trump is far from the only politician in the US or around the world to appeal to national pride through images of military strength and economic prosperity. But one question we think Christians in the US should wrestle with in response to this is: If pride is a sin and all glory should go to God, what should we think of aspirations to political greatness? Can this kind of greatness even be truly unifying?

In some respects, President Trump's address was perfectly in line with many traditions of American political conversation. For example, presidential speeches regularly offer lofty rhetoric. So, the president's claims that, "a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp" isn't all that remarkable, nor is his declaration that, "America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by your fears; inspired by the future, not bound by the failures of the past; and guided by your vision, not blinded by our doubts." Equally expected are the notes of military strength and economic dynamism, which the speech points to as essential parts of American greatness. They were a staple of Alexander Hamilton's arguments for a strong navy and vibrant commerce, and they haven't left our public rhetoric since. 

But what has been unique about President Trump's speech when compared to similar major addresses by other presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries is that he tends to not discuss America's role in the wider world, and the fact that his calls for a resurgence in national pride seem to be divorced from any discussion of national service. Yes, he boldly stated in his address that, "America is once again ready to lead," but he also couched that statement by saying that it would be a, "leadership based on [our] vital security interests."

Thus, although President Trump stands in a long line of men who have invoked the concept of national greatness as a part of our civic religion, he does so in a provocatively different way, a way that seems to dampen the echoes of Christian care for one’s neighbors that can often be heard in earlier American discussions of the moral dimensions of international statecraft. Looking at President Trump’s vision of American greatness alongside statements from his most recent predecessor (Barack Obama) and his least recent predecessor (George Washington), can help illustrate this shift.

Washington’s most important political statement, his Farewell Address, is primarily remembered for his insistence that we avoid "permanent national friendships and enmities." However, in remembering that, we often forget the nuance of this position in relation to his broader political philosophy. Before moving on to his specific policy recommendations, Washington urged his fellow citizens to remember the religious grounding of the republic: 

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government.” 

Washington understood America’s greatness—its political prosperity—to be possible because of the widespread religiosity of its people. He thought that their adherence to a set of religious virtues and beliefs would keep them from turning liberty into license. These religious sensibilities could also offer the benefit of simultaneously tempering national pride while providing a basis for a sort of charitable neighborliness between states and nations. This would prevent Americans from either arrogantly attempting to assert themselves into the business of other nations on one hand, or sliding from a stance of political independence into self-serving isolationism on the other.

Former President Obama’s first inaugural address emphasized similar ideas: 

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

In Obama’s speech, American greatness is in how it fulfills its principles, and these principles are as much about the uplifting of all mankind as they are about the realization of particular agendas.

Both Washington’s speech and Obama’s speech were parts of a tradition of presidential rhetoric that framed American greatness not as pride in nation over all else, but rather as a humble willingness to bring others into the fold of our freedom, justice and prosperity. In this way, we sometimes work out a stance toward the world that emphasizes the light we bring by example rather than one that focuses too much on our status and role against other nations. 

In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin famously reported his practical experiment in character improvement as a young man, along with a list of virtues he felt essential to the well-formed life. Among them, he listed temperance, industry, justice, and (perhaps surprisingly, for anyone who knows about Franklin's personality), as the last on the list, humility. To achieve the last, Franklin wrote, he would "imitate Jesus and Socrates." 

Setting aside the irony of seeking humility by attempting to model himself on such exceptional men, Franklin's advice is surreptitiously apt for our own age. Both Jesus and Socrates were viewed by history as indisputably Great Men who were not only aware of their own greatness, but who advertised it to those around them. It surely did not appear to the Pharisees that Jesus was being humble when he said, "I and the Father are one," and "N man comes to the Father but through me." Nor could the jury at Socrates' trial in Athens have been impressed by his humility when he suggested that his sentence for 'corrupting' the youth of that city be a generous pension. 

Yet these were not the statements of braggarts: They were simply statements of fact. Jesus and the Father are one. He gave up the perfection of Heaven to come to earth to live in the squalor of our broken, sinful world, all so that we might be one with the Father, too. In justice, Socrates did deserve some reward for his work orienting the minds of the young men of Athens to the true, the good, and the beautiful—but he remained a pauper, dependent on the kindness of others to feed and clothe his own children. The two men Franklin pointed to as examples of humility and virtue were each broken and poured out even to the point of death for the good of their societies—but this is only humility because we know their greatness of soul. True humility does not consist of being meek and downtrodden when you cannot be anything else; it consists of giving up the glory which is due you in order to serve and to love and to teach. 

Can America be great in this sense? Can any nation live up to that? Maybe—but it likely means not being satisfied with visions of economic nationalism and political independence. Instead, perhaps, we ought to seek ways to nudge our public identity as a nation towards the greatness of soul embodied by Jesus and Socrates, and to live and work with humility in our interactions with the world, adopting policies that lift up the weakest among us rather than exult our own already-heady status in the world.

All Americans ought to consider these claims seriously as citizens and encourage their representatives to embrace a humble approach to politics at home and abroad that nonetheless works toward justice where it can be achieved. We should actively seek to curb the excesses of pride that a deep belief in one’s nation can bring out in our character as a people by attempting to moderate the rhetoric of greatness in our own conversations and, indeed, in our expectations from governmental figures at all levels. More specifically, as Christians, it is important to recognize that humility and charity in politics may not look exactly the same as humility and charity in our everyday life, but that we can apply the same virtues in both realms. 

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Our New Podcast: Episode Zero

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Our New Podcast: Episode Zero

The Center for Christian Civics team is excited to announce the first release from our new podcast series. This podcast will feature interviews with insightful Christians across the political spectrum about how our faith equips us for missionary citizenship in a dynamic representative democracy. It will also be a great opportunity to share excerpts from the classes we've been hosting in churches around the country and commentary on how we might be able to respond to breaking news and major questions without conforming to the party lines we're usually offered. 

We've been working on interviews and developing ideas for episodes all spring, and before we start releasing official episodes, we wanted to give our readers, subscribers and followers a sneak peek. In this special sampler episode, we're sharing excerpts from three future segments:

First, we interview Body Politic correspondents Brian Smith and Sarah Morgan Smith about their recent article, "An Introduction to Interpreting the Constitution." Next, we bring you an excerpt from a class by Center for Christian Civics board member Rev. Charles Drew on "Turning Down the Political Heat" in our churches. Lastly, we round out the episode with part of a recent conversation on what sociology can teach us about loving our neighbors with pastor and sociologist Dr. Richard Smith.

We hope that this whets your appetite--the first full episode will be posted right here on our blog in about two weeks, and you'll be able to find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app in mid-June.


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On the Johnson Amendment

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On the Johnson Amendment

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017, President Trump noted that he would stand with those who are calling for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which allows non-profit organizations (including churches) to be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they endorse a political candidate. And, indeed, two weeks ago, the White House circulated an Executive Order on religious liberty that included instructions for the IRS to “alleviate the burden” of the Johnson Amendment on religious institutions.

Some Important Notes

It’s first important to note that this is not a the same as a repeal: The Johnson Amendment remains part of the tax code and could still be enforceable through other avenues besides the IRS taking direct punitive measures. However, this move does seem to at least indicate that for the time being, the IRS will not seek to enforce the amendment in a pro-active manner during the course of their regular operations. It’s also worth noting that the Johnson Amendment has rarely ever actually been enforced. Until now, only one organization has ever lost tax-exempt status under it, so whether this order actually changes anything is unclear.

As an organization intent on equipping the Church to engage with the public square, we are excited that a conversation is brewing about the church’s relationship to politics. How we approach government and politics is a question for Christians in a representative democracy to wrestle with together. But while we understand the many ways in which weakening or eliminating the Johnson Amendment would be a tempting proposition, we think the concern about the Johnson Amendment is misplaced, and that repealing and/or reducing the Johnson Amendment diminishes what should be best practices for addressing politics in faith communities.

Criticisms Rooted in Fear

Some critics of the Johnson Amendment say that it leaves churches vulnerable to retribution from politicians or parties whose policies are at odds with church practices. Other critics want to see the Johnson Amendment removed so that pastors and other church leaders can be explicit in their support for particular candidates for public office without fear of political reprisal. Parishioners often ask for guidance in how to vote and they want pastors to be able to answer clearly rather than dance around their opinions, have have frank conversations rather than need to find manipulative and deceptive strategies for expressing their thoughts indirectly.

And while it is true that, for the sheer joy of never having to look at one more completely one-sided “voter guide” that looks more like a partisan sample ballot, we are tempted to join such critics as they call for repeal, these criticisms are also expressions of fear, and so should be questioned. In his second letter to his disciple Timothy, Paul challenges all leaders to not make their decisions out of a spirit of fear or timidness. We are called to live out of power, love and self-discipline. Our political positions and answers to the political questions need to come from this same source. We need to deny political positions that come from a spirit that is not from God. On this and any answer with political implications, we should flee from positions developed out of a spirit of fear. Fear draws out our worst inclinations while power, love and self-discipline will always draw out our best.

Endorsements Make Mission Harder

Most congregations in the US are ministering in communities where there are a mix of political views. Even in the politically “safest” towns for one party or another, thirty or forty percent of the vote routinely goes to “the other party” and a large number of neighbors sit the election out entirely. While this kind of diversity might make for a fractious town hall meeting, it has always actually been a strength of the church. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he likens the church to a body with many parts and functions. Paul challenges the church at Corinth to revel in that diversity rather than fearing or resenting it.

An endorsement of a particular candidate from the pulpit (or from the stage) tells the surrounding community that your church is only a place for people who already agree with the pastor, or with most of the members. But people of shared faith can come to very different conclusions about today’s politics and still be called into community together. The Center for Christian Civics came together as leaders who love and serve the same God and as individuals with a shared faith but very different approaches to politics--at the same time! We not only believe people of different political opinions can participate in Christian community together, we believe that we can have healthier community and a better witness, both personally and corporately, in the full and open expression of our differences. We believe that churches where the congregation is politically diverse can both strengthen the congregants’ faith and strengthen their witness to their friends and neighbors.

Endorsements Accept The Present Age As It Currently Is

We are pilgrims, travellers passing through on a long walk toward a kingdom that is not of this world. Yet the same God who put us on this journey also calls us to invest in the healing and restoration of this home away from home while we are here. When we accept our culture’s terms of debate, we miss a crucial opportunity to draw a distinction between this world and the coming Kingdom. The church becomes more like the world around us rather than offering that world our God’s healing.

U.S. history is littered with the stories of Christians and Christian leaders living out a cautionary tale, slowly but surely conforming to the patterns of their party. Churches and their leaders who endorse candidates for public office deliberately make themselves vulnerable to the same plight. They eventually take on the image of the political party they support rather than helping the parties their church members belong to look more like the church.

Endorsements Hinder One of Our Greatest Apologetics: Empathy

Endorsements are binary, an all-or-nothing affair. You can explain why you made your endorsement with reservations, but in the end, you either endorse or you don’t--and candidates can either tell the world around them that they won your support or they can’t. Thus, endorsing sides in our biennial (or, in some states, annual) partisan warfare also has the unintended effect of implying to our congregations that we endorse not just a candidate, party or movement, but also the way they speak and behave. If a candidate with policies you approve of behaves poorly or exploits the growing instability, polarization and hatred in our communities, issuing an endorsement sends the message that joining them in their hatred is a small price to pay for being right.

But Christ did not say that God's Children would be known to be God’s by the “rightness” or “righteousness” of their political opinions and selections. Christ did not say that his followers would be known to be God’s by their ability to convince other people that they are right and others were wrong. And he certainly did not say that God’s Children would be known to be his children by their ability to judge everyone else who got it all wrong, or by their ability to honestly say, “Well don’t blame me--I didn’t vote for them!”

He said we would be known by our LOVE.

When we stand before our Creator and look back at our lives, including every single political position we ever took, we won’t be judged on if we were right or not. We won’t be judged on whether we were parts of the right groups or parties. Every time we seemed to do the right thing will be drowned out and rendered worthless if our actions were not saturated in love. If the Angels of Heaven sing "Hallelujahs" over the things we do, it is because we do them in ways that reflect the character of the God who is Love.

One way we can have love be more at the core of our politics is to practice empathy. Endorsements generally celebrate our allies while blanketly condemning both our opponents and those who don't feel like they have any good option in the election in question. Empathy puts ourselves in the position of those affected by our political ideologies. Empathy seeks out the stories that don’t just reinforce our political opinion but challenge it. It asks, “How does this position I hold affect other people, who are made in God’s image?” When we encounter political opposition, empathy pushes us into deeper conversation in an attempt to see the weaknesses in our approach through the eyes of our opponents. In the church, empathy gives birth to fellowship.

Endorsement Deprive Congregants of Opportunities to Grow

God has seen fit to place us in a time and place where our government is a representative democracy, a mode of government that wasn’t directly addressed in any of the biblical texts. Our democracy is made up of hundreds of millions of good but fallen people making some decisions together and supervising representatives who make other ones. We have to decide whether to take part in that process and, if so, how. Do we cast a vote? If so, for what levels of office? Which issues are you going to prioritize? And which approach to those issues makes the most sense to you? Beyond just voting, we have even more decisions to make about government: Will we sign a ballot measure? Collect signatures for it ourselves? How will we interact with our representatives between elections? Will we join a neighborhood watch? A PTA? A park restoration team? A protest?

Like every decision we make, these decisions about government and civil society need to be made with our best, prayerful wisdom, and made in light of what Christ has done for us. Our churches can equip us to work through these questions, and they can exhort us to be present and incarnated in our local communities or lay out a vision for how to witness well while maintaining separation. But issuing endorsements is a shortcut, skipping our brothers and sisters past the process of discernment. It takes away their God-given opportunity to wrestle with difficult questions together, to sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron.

Endorsements Downplay Responsibility

Every American has the opportunity to participate in a democratic experiment that is unique in human history. Unfortunately, too many of us think that our opportunities for civic responsibility begin and end on Tuesdays in November. For this experiment to work--perhaps even work well--far more is called for by citizens. Citizenship is a high calling with which we need to wrestle like Jacob wrestled God on the side of the Jordan River. It should be a question we raise each and every day as we ask, “What is my role in my community, my country?” Our God given responsibility of citizenship should lead us to hours of research, both in Scripture and in the world. It should lead us to seek out stories of those affected or who will be affected by a political proposal or idea. It should drive us toward more discussion and dialogue as we seek to understand and persuade. That is what citizenship looks like as it is nurtured. Ceding our decision-making responsibilities to someone else is citizenship neglected.

Citizenship hard. Politics is challenging to figure out on your own, let alone work through together. But it’s not an accident that we were placed in a country that vests us with these opportunities. Handling them well is an expression of our identities as disciples of Christ. And discipleship, sanctification of our hearts and minds, was never promised to be easy.  

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A Letter From Our Assignment Editor

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A Letter From Our Assignment Editor

Andrew Whitworth is the Assignment Editor for The Body Politic, where he works with bother regular and guest writers to develop article ideas and bring their articles from first draft to final draft.


Dear Reader,

The public square is a crowded place these days. As the internet and social media continue to change how we all engage in public conversation, it can be easy to feel lost among many voices. Here at the Center for Christian Civics, we don't want to simply produce more content for consumption--but we do think that there is a need for a church-focused forum for talking about politics and our civic responsibilities as Christians.

Where Does CXC Fit Into the Conversation?

There are many great organizations doing work in the sphere of politics and civic engagement. Whether they are think-tanks, media organizations or advocacy groups, most of them are outward-facing institutions. CXC is unique in that our primary audience is the church. We believe that politics, public life and civic engagement are matters of discipleship and vital work of the local church.

But too often, we don't have a theology of public life that's robust enough to support the scope of our passion or commitment. Too often, the vacuum left by the lack of a political theology has left room for idols like nationalism, race and identity politics to capture our imaginations. Our spiritual formation and witness has suffered because of this. We hope to engage Christians of all cultures and traditions, seeking justice and bridging divisions both inside and outside the walls of the church.

The question for Christians in a representative government is not whether we need to engage with the public square or not, but how. Even when the course forward is listening rather than speaking and learning rather than leading, it is not the route of disengagement. The simple command to love our neighbors as ourselves requires us to engage.

What is needed now is a reimagined Christian political witness and we here at the Center for Christian Civics hope to provide resources and equip Christians, both individuals and communities, toward this goal.

What Can You Expect From Us?

One of the ways we want to work towards this goal of equipping Christians is through this blog, The Body Politic. We hope this can be a forum that brings together a diverse set of Christian voices and readers to engage with what it means to live faithfully in our political callings and responsibilities.

We will run pieces covering three general areas: First, we will have regular articles covering civic education. How does our political system work? How has the way our government works changed over time? What can our country's history teach us about our present political moment? Second, we will have pieces focused on questions of political theology and spiritual formation. What does following Jesus have to do with politics? In what ways is the gospel political? How do Christians engage a pluralistic society with our exclusive faith? How do churches minister to those who work in government and politics? What role does the church play in political community?

And third, we will have pieces from Christians sharing personal stories of political engagement, hopefully helping bridge the gap between the "out there" work of politics and the "right here" work of our daily, common life. These pieces will come from congressional staffers, policy advocates, political scientists, community activists and private citizens across the political spectrum.

What We Hope for The Body Politic

We hope that this would become a community of folks working through these questions together. As the body of Christ, we recognize that iron sharpens iron and we have much to learn from one another. We hope that the readers and writers in this space will feel supported to do this work in their local churches and communities.

Our church communities have the opportunity to demonstrate the reconciling power of the gospel to our neighbors and our nation in a time when it is desperately needed. We hope that this space would be one that combats polarization and increases empathy and understanding. It is difficult to imagine this, given the deep fractures of our communities, but we think this is the only way forward. By having these conversations together, we hope to model different points of view in fellowship with one another.

At the same time, we want this space to b e one of learning and growth. We want this outlet to be challenging. We will not avoid conflict or difficult topics and we understand that civility is not always our end goal. We hope that by engaging with both humility and conviction, and with special effort to listen to people we might normally dismiss or ignore, that we will enter into the work of the Spirit to be formed more in the likeness of Jesus, even in our politics.

We want this blog to be collaborative, so please reach out to us with any questions, comments or ideas! Thank you for reading.

"Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen."

Andrew Whitworth
Assignment Editior


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Spiritual Mistakes That Can Lead to Political Problems

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Spiritual Mistakes That Can Lead to Political Problems

Rick Barry is Executive Director of the Center for Christian Civics. 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 also currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.


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.

Four Idolatries

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.


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Audio Recording: April 2017 Prayer Call with Dr. Richard Smith

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Audio Recording: April 2017 Prayer Call with Dr. Richard Smith

Our April 2017 prayer call covered a range of topics, including how to exercise our citizenship with wisdom and preparing our hearts for witness in militarily unstable times.

We also welcomed special guest Dr. Richard M. Smith to the call. Dr. Smith is pastor of Oakland Mills Church of God in Columbia, MD, and associate professor of sociology at McDaniel College.

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Some of the Questions Christians in the U.S. Should Consider about Syria

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Some of the Questions Christians in the U.S. Should Consider about Syria

This is the third in a series of articles covering the United States' recent bombing of a Syrian military airbase.


Since the White House announced Thursday night that the U.S. had launched missile strikes against a Syrian military air base, our airwaves and newsfeeds have been clogged with reports and articles attempting to explain the situation and editorials and jeremiads attempting to ensure you react to the situation in a particular way.

Because Christians should be people who honor the image of God even in people who make decisions we disagree with, and who recognize that the fall means we don’t reason and argue with perfect moral clarity, we want to take a few minutes to offer a few questions to ask as you form your reactions to this week’s events.

When is force justified? What are acceptable reasons for the U.S. to use its military?

Scripture concedes that governments have the power of the sword, but it is up to rulers and those in authority to wield that power justly--which means that when we vote and when we interact with our elected representatives, each citizen in the U.S. has to think about how we want to see our military force used.

For many Christians, the command to be peacemakers and to beat swords into ploughshares, as well as Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Gethsemane, all read as a call to pacifism, and giving our consent to any use of force seems sinful. To others, Jesus’ warning that his disciples will need to carry their swords with them when they travel after his death muddies the waters, leading to the conclusion that, while we shouldn’t seek out opportunities to use force, we should be willing to use it in some circumstances. (This has led to an entire branch of political philosophy in the church called Just War Theory.)

If you believe that Christians should be willing to condone the use of violence in some circumstances, what are the circumstances in which you are comfortable seeing the U.S. military used? Strictly for defense against threats to the homeland? For defense of U.S. citizens overseas? Would it ever be acceptable to use force against potential threats that haven’t yet developed? If so, when? Should force be a tool of diplomacy, used to protect our country’s strategic interests or advance our goals? How willing should we be to enter into conflicts that don’t already directly involve U.S. populations but seem to be blatantly unjust?

Christians of good faith can likely have a number of different answers to the above (and below) questions, but part of maintaining a faithful presence in our country is demonstrating that we take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously. We were entrusted with them by God when he put us in this time and place, and we want to work them out the same way we do anything else in our lives--in light of the love and mercy that he has shown us.

Why did this operation take place? What is our official policy on the Syrian civil war and why?

In the hours following the military strike, two different narratives began to be shared about why the President decided to deploy this strike, both coming from official sources making public statements:

The first was that the use of force was a direct response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which are banned by international law. If this is the case, then the strike was an effort to contain the use of these weapons and curtail their expansion, ensuring that what happens in Syria doesn’t become a threat to the U.S.

The second was that the President was moved by the images he saw of the aftermath of the attacks, particularly the photos and videos he saw of injured children. This could be the case. But, given that the public has deeply mixed levels of trust in the President’s ability to safely manage military strikes, this could also be an attempt to justify the attacks in a way that appeals to more people’s sympathies.

Either way, it raises major questions about our federal government’s current approach to the use of force and the Syrian civil war. This use of chemical weapons was not substantively different from earlier attacks in Syria, most notably the attacks in Ghouta in 2013. In response to those attacks our current President repeatedly said that any U.S. military intervention in Syria would be a mistake. If this is exactly the kind of horror that has marked the Syrian civil war for years, what has changed about the circumstances on the ground to make a U.S. airstrike less of a mistake in President Trump’s estimation than it would have been in 2013? If the circumstances haven’t changed, what has changed about his understanding of them? If neither of those things have changed, then what are the strategic goals and moral or philosophical guidelines shaping the decisions about how our country uses force?

Were non-violent actions available?

Even in the Just War tradition of Christian thought, military action is to only be pursued after all other options have been exhausted. In this situation, can you think of other ways our country could have pursued our goals without using violence?

How much power to command violence am I comfortable with one person having?

As we’ve already explored together this weekend, the rules governing the President’s obligations to Congress where military actions are concerned have been in flux in recent generations, and whatever balance is struck by the laws at any given time is also subject to whether the President or Congress are actually willing to exercise their rights over one another. Given that all people are fallen and prone to errors, are you more comfortable when Congress exercises its rights to set limits on the duration of military activities, trusting that the relevant committees can provide another set of eyes to check the President’s blind spots? Or do you think that the value of being able to make decisions quickly and freely as circumstances change is too important to leave military strategy subject to review?

Who is my neighbor and what is my responsibility to them?

International politics is incredibly complicated, and its problems are often difficult to understand even for people who spend their whole lives studying them. For those of us who don’t spend our lives thinking about these things, trying to develop a deep enough understanding about them to be sure that we know the best moves for our country to make can be overwhelming.

Reframing some of these conversations can probably be helpful. While we might not be able to explain the precarious dynamics between factions in the Syrian conflict and how each faction's success or failure impacts U.S. interests, we do know that the Lord commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we approach the questions raised by the Syrian conflict, we can approach them with this guiding question in mind: Who is my neighbor and what is my responsibility to them?

What does loving our neighbor lead us to do, to stand for? Certainly this includes what we expect of our federal government, but it also goes far beyond that. We are implicated in the command to love our neighbors not just as a country but also as individuals. Our posture in conversations about national and international issues should always reflect our primary commitment to love God and to love our neighbors.

To what degree am I willing to take part in healing the wounds this conflict has caused?

Even if Christians support military action in Syria, we cannot be satisfied with only military action. Our responsibility to love our neighbors, even those on the other side of the globe, demands something more of us. Who is doing good work on the ground and how can Christians be supporting them--whether it is through the U.S. government, through our churches or through our actions as private citizens? What moral responsibilities does the U.S. have to support the Syrian people? In a fallen world, Christians can not take for granted that our government officials have righteous motivations, especially in a country where citizens have the responsibility of oversight! What pressures need to be put on Congress and the present administration to act with moral concerns of justice rather than simply pragmatic self-interest?

Does this change the way I think about the debate over refugees?

As mentioned above, this week’s use of chemical weapons was nothing new in the Syrian civil war. Many people who were advocating for the U.S. to offer sanctuary to more Syrian refugees pointed to the fact that potential refugees had already had to live within that violence for years while the background check process took place. But the debate over military intervention has helped many of our fellow citizens understand the nature and degree of violence taking place there with new clarity. If you are comfortable using our country’s military strength and military resources to try to curb the horrors being inflicted on Syrians, are you also comfortable using our country to provide shelter or hospitality to those who are trying to flee the violence? Why or why not?

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A Longer Look at Syria and War Powers

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A Longer Look at Syria and War Powers

This is the second in a series of articles covering the United States' recent bombing of a Syrian military airbase. This article provides a deeper look at the Syrian civil war and similar military interventions in U.S. history.


Louis Evans is a writer living and working in San Francisco. You can read some more of his political commentary at evanslouis.com. He likes explaining stuff.

Last night, the U.S. Navy launched 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat Airfield in Syria. Here’s a summary of the Syrian Civil War, the nature of the attack, the U.S.’s response, and its status under American law.

The Basics

  • The Syrian Civil War The Syrian Civil War began on March 15, 2011. The major factions are:
    • The Assad Regime (aka the Syrian Government) In power in Syria since the late 60s/early 70s (depending on how you count). Ba’athist and dictatorial. Hasn’t held (legitimate) elections in decades. Currently led by Bashar al-Assad and supported by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.
    • The Syrian Opposition (aka the rebels) A wide range of armed opposition groups within Syria, including army defectors, Islamist groups (inc. a rebranded, disaffiliated former al Qaeda subsidiary), and others. Hard to talk about as a unit, because their number is always changing and the power and alliances between them is constantly shifting. Supported by Turkey, and allegedly by the U.S.
    • ISIS (aka ISIL) An Islamist quasi-state organization holding territory in Iraq and Syria. Theocratic and oppressive. Wildly unpopular with everyone. Plays no (direct) role in this story.
    • Rojava A de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. The Syrian slice of Kurdistan—a proposed nation of Kurds, an ethnic group found in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Its army is the SDF, which is in turn mostly composed of the YPG, a Kurdish militia. Supported by the US. Plays no (direct) role in this story.
  • Chemical Weapons Chemical weapons are banned by the Geneva Protocol, a 1925 treaty agreed upon by 140 countries. They’re banned because, one, their effects are horrifying, and two, they are especially likely to harm civilians and cause lasting damage to the environment. They were widely used in World War I, but since the Geneva Protocol was signed, European nations have largely not used chemical warfare on one another (though they have been used in a range of other conflicts).
  • Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Civil War There have been over 60 instances of reported chemical attacks in the Syrian Civil War. The most notable attack was the Ghouta attacks of August 21, 2013, in which several hundred to near two thousand people were killed with sarin gas. Opposition forces blamed the Assad regime, which stockpiles these particular weapons; the Assad regime blamed the rebels. This incident led the Obama administration to ask Congress to approve military action in Syria. Before Congress could come to a decision,, the Assad regime struck a deal with Russia and the US to turn over its weapons, and President Obama did not deploy military forces against Syria.
  • The Khan Shaykhun Chemical Attack On April 4th, 2017, Khan Shaykhun, a town controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamic Opposition group with clear ties to al Queda, was hit with an airstrike, followed by extensive chemical effects. The nerve gas killed dozens and wounded hundreds, including civilians and children. If confirmed, this attack would be the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since the Ghouta attacks described above. The Syrian government denied responsibility for the attack, and Russia agrees, but the claims are not regarded as credible.
  • The American Retaliation On April 6th, the US launched 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles at Shayrat Airfield, a Syrian military facility where the US believes the chemical weapons originated. (The Tomahawk missile is bigger than what you probably think of when you think of “missile”: it weighs about half as much as an entire WWII fighter plane and is more like an entire bomber that you don’t need to pick up after you use it. It has been a favored weapon for American presidents who wish to punish another leader without escalating into full-scale war since the early 90s.)

The Law, or, Can We Do That?

This is a very tricky question. Scholars, Congress, and the President all have different opinions about what decisions the President can make on his own, and there is no clear authority to judge between them. When it comes to rules guiding how countries can behave when they attack one another, the U.S. Constitution (and most of international law) tends to assume that military conflicts happen in declared wars, where the countries involved have officially announced their intentions to wage war upon one another. In a declared war, the separation of powers under the Constitution is clear: Congress holds the power to declare war; the President, as Commander in Chief of the military, has the power to lead the military in the war that Congress declared.

However, ever since President Adams’s Quasi-War with France (which came with its own Congressional resolution), American Presidents have found ways to commit military forces without formal declarations of war (often with legally questionable justifications). In fact, the U.S. has not declared war since 1942: We entered the Korean War through a U.N. resolution, the Vietnam War as part of Congress’ Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and so on.

In 1969, President Nixon began secretly bombing Cambodia—which is insane, when you think about it. The U.S. Air Force bombed a country and the President just . . . didn’t tell anyone. In response, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution. According to the 1973 law, the President must consult with Congress before deploying forces, report to Congress when forces are deployed, begin withdrawing forces within sixty days if Congress does not pass a resolution authorizing them, and remove them if Congress so directs.

Since the War Powers Resolution went into effect, Presidents have submitted well over a hundred reports to Congress, but, it’s not clear how effective the War Powers Resolution has actually been. When Reagan struck a compromise with Congressional leaders to affirm an eighteen-month stay for marines in Lebanon, he asserted that he was simply recognizing his power as Commander in Chief. President Clinton kept U.S. troops in Somalia for nearly a year longer than the deadline Congress attempted to set for them, and continued bombing Kosovo for more than two weeks after the 60-day deadline, with only shaky legal justification. And whether the authority the War Powers Resolution grants Congress to require the president to withdraw troops is even Constitutional is actually an open question: courts typically try to avoid weighing in on the relationship between Congress and the President.

Many of these issues came to a head in 2011, when the U.S. took part in a NATO bombing campaign against the Libyan government for well over sixty days without Congressional approval. The President claimed that this use of force was too small and indirect to be covered by the War Powers Resolution. Some of the President’s lawyers, along with several members of Congress, disagreed. Congress ultimately passed a resolution asserting that it had the power to order the U.S. to withdraw—but then it didn’t actually try to exercise that power! Because Congress never actually tried to get the President to cease participating in the bombing, we have no idea whether a President would actually listen to Congress in a situation like that, or what would happen if a President didn’t.

What does all this mean for President Trump’s actions in Syria?

The law outlining and constraining the President’s powers in cases like this is both indeterminate and dynamic. And while previous Presidents have taken steps that were, at the time, unprecedented, this administration’s actions represent a step beyond those of previous presidents. President Trump has no declaration of war, and no specific Congressional resolution authorizing force against the Assad regime. He is not protecting U.S. soldiers or citizens, or responding to an attack upon them. He is not acting in accordance with a U.N. resolution, or NATO commitment. But past experience suggests that he probably won't face any kind of practical consequences for acting out of accord with earlier precedents. Right now, Republican Senators are split.

Some Shameless Editorializing from the Author

To me, the true lesson of the war powers debate is that we don’t have laws as much as we make laws. The war powers precedents have emerged not from an official document but from particular crises. The President and Congress negotiate and they press their relative advantages. But in a democracy, all of us play a role in every decision of state—and so we play a role in every precedent laid down, in every choice that establishes the future shape of American war powers.

What do I want for my country? What do we all want for our nation? The choice in Syria is crushing; all of the options have their own bitter consequences. And the choice in general is yet harder. Is America the world’s police? How can we square a commitment to peace with a commitment to protect the vulnerable? When the leader of a nation poisons his people, what should we do?


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Introduction to Syria and War Powers

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Introduction to Syria and War Powers

This is the first in a series of articles covering the United States' recent bombing of a Syrian military airbase. This article provides a quick overview of Friday's events and the questions we'll be exploring throughout the weekend.


Brian Andrew Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a regular correspondent for The Body Politic.

Becoming President tends to change politicians’ opinions about how to use force: George W. Bush campaigned on a heavily domestic platform that rejected the kind of military-led humanitarian action that marked the Clinton years, yet as President he was an active proponent of eliminating hostile regimes. Candidate Barack Obama promised a systematic move away from the use of force, yet he is likely to be remembered in military history as the President that firmly established targeted killing as a permanent tool of U.S. statecraft. As a candidate for President, Donald Trump made the case that while the tragedy in Syria is largely of our making, he would not take it upon himself to challenge the Assad regime. Assad’s use of sarin—particularly horrific nerve gas—against civilians changed this.

Having so much power and authority to act independently, the President of the United States faces enormous pressure to act immediately when crises present themselves. This is true in every area of our political life, but our current political climate, the laws governing how our country uses force and the practical realities of governing makes the presidential authority in military affairs near-absolute in the hours following a crisis.

The last sixteen years have seen a dramatic expansion of presidential war powers. Officially, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 offers a bulwark against hasty commitment of American forces. According to the resolution, the president must notify Congress of any U.S. military action within 48 hours, and requires explicit congressional authorization for actions longer than sixty days. In practice, it creates a situation where Congress is always reacting to presidential decisions after the fact. The blanket Authorization of Military Force against the perpetrators of 9/11 has muddied the waters even further by affording the executive branch an ongoing justification for individual, one-time uses of force around the world.

Many will debate whether there is direct precedent for the U.S. to respond to an attack by a foreign government on its own civilians. Given the sheer scope of U.S. activity worldwide, it is hard to imagine that from time to time U.S. forces have not quietly engaged in uses of force to protect civilians. Yesterday’s response in Syria probably deserves some credit for its proportionality: Because it was launched overnight, it killed very few people. Moreover, unlike some other acts of U.S. retaliation, it was a direct attack on the very airfield from which Assad’s chemical weapons attack originated.

The administration has stated that this was a one-time response to a particular act. Strategically, it’s meant to deter Syria from taking similar actions in the future. Russia has predictably moved to publicly support Syria. The status quo will probably remain; the ongoing moral challenge of Syria remains. 

As a matter of how the citizens of a republic ought to think about this kind of power, however, this poses another challenge. In the name of safety and security, we have generally granted each new president ever-increasing powers in matters of war. (Check back Saturday morning for another article touching on how and why that process happened.) It may well be that a swift response to Assad’s murder of Syrian citizens was in order, and there may be other situations in the future where military actions demand this kind of speed and secrecy. But the fact that a president--any president--need only say the word and inflict violence ought to give most people pause, and encourage us to think about the role we want Congress and our congressional representatives to play in these matters in the future, balancing national security with their duty to be heard.


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An Introduction to Interpreting the Constitution

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An Introduction to Interpreting the Constitution

Brian Andrew Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Sarah Morgan Smith is an instructor in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program housed in the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and co-director of the Ashbrook Center’s Religion in American History project.


Today, the United States Senate will begin confirmation hearings for President Trump’s nominee to the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch, who currently serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, is a potentially divisive nominee, if for no other reason than the fact that the seat has been empty for well over a year and many of former President Obama’s supporters believe the Senate should have taken action on his nomination of Merrick Garland.

In the modern era, Supreme Court nominations are frequently a highly partisan affair, but the bulk of the day-to-day work of the Court is not: roughly fifty percent of opinions issued by the court since 2010 have been unanimously decided.* Although over half of the court’s decisions are divided, the divide does not always fall along a left/right split. Writers often talk as if major court decisions follow directly from the presumed political preferences of the justices, “conservative” versus “liberal” or “progressive.” The trouble with these labels is that they ignore the fact that in the Supreme Court’s own account of their work, in the text of the opinions issued from the bench, what the justices (regardless of their interpretive predilections) focus their attention upon is precedent, textual meaning, and the intent behind the laws they are called to consider.

*You can view the breakdown of the court’s opinions for every term since 2010 online.

Two Approaches

As one commentator has noted, “being a Supreme Court justice is like holding a ‘spork’ and trying to decide whether it is more like a spoon or a fork.”* Given the same set of precedents, legal history, and text, individual justices often reach quite different conclusions about how the law applies. At least since the New Deal, the major interpretive divide on the Supreme Court has been between defenders of “originalism” and advocates of “living constitutionalism.”

*See Lax and Rader, “Legal Constraints on Supreme Court Decision Making: Do Jurisprudential Regimes Exist?” The Journal of Politics 72(2), 283.

To put it very briefly: originalism, as the name implies, argues that in resolving contests over Constitutional meaning, we should strive to implement the intent of the original framers of the text as closely as possible. The political payoff of such an approach is a level of certainty about the limits of political action, and thus a degree of predictability and stability in government for both citizens and legislators. Living constitutionalism, by contrast, sees original intent as the beginning of a conversation whereby the actual clauses are expanded to new shades of meaning driven by present political concerns. This naturally allows the judges greater latitude in providing remedies to aggrieved citizens or in extending rights to new areas of life.[SMS1] 

An agreement that a case involves first amendment issues, then does not necessitate every justice rule the same way on the application of the right(s) in question.* Making these judgments fairly is a challenging mandate for fallen creatures. Law is not a machine, and the issues judges decide are seldom unambiguous. If cases could be decided on a mechanistic basis, the entire system could be streamlined simply by replacing judges with computers. No serious person would entertain such an idea, however, for the simple reason that we all recognize the inherent limitations of language and the potential injustice of thoughtless applications of the law without regard for circumstances. This does not mean that precedent, textual meaning, and intent are irrelevant, or that the law is simply whatever the justices say that it is (or should be). Rather, it means that the role of the justice is to sift through the competing facts of the case in light of all relevant legal considerations to discover how the law applies in any given instance.

*See for example, Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Marshall and Justice Blackmun, concurring opinion in James M. Beam Distilling Co. v. Georgia, 501 U.S. 529 (1991), at 549.

What’s missing from the public debate over Constitutional meaning is a recursion to first principles. As citizens, we relate to the government through not only the structure but also the premises of the Constitution. In certain ways, the Constitution itself requires us to accept an underlying set of commitments derived from natural law and embodied in the Declaration of Independence that Christians are ideally positioned to champion.

The Word of the Law and the Law of the Word

Christians of all stripes rightly believe that government ought to advance at least some of the issues of justice and morality we hold dear. And although we often fundamentally agree about what those issues are, faithful believers may disagree over the ways in which they might best be realized. In practice, although we look to Scripture for guidance in how to think about these highly contentious issues, to engage with their political aspects we are forced into debates about the nature and role of government itself.

In the American context, such questions center on the Constitution: the institutional structure it creates, but also the rights implicitly and explicitly found in the text. And here we are on much shakier ground: it’s hard to identify much obvious help in Scripture when thinking about constitutional interpretation or what judges should do in a modern multicultural republic. There is a long tradition in Christian political philosophy of thinking abstractly about lawfulness and the elements laws must have to encourage citizens to consider them seriously. Law should be clear so that citizens can understand them. Since it is unjust to hold citizens accountable for breaking laws of which they are unaware, laws must publicized. They should also be framed in a general way, so that as much as possible they apply to all citizens equally. But if we presume that under all but the most extreme conditions, the Constitution itself fulfills these criteria, then these kinds of discussions don’t tell us all that much about what we as citizens should think about it.

While the basic principle found in Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 of giving due respect to those who interpret and enforce the law seems clear, we must ask what it means to honor the political sovereign. This is especially challenging in a representative government where we ourselves are that sovereign. Every American citizen has an obligation to interpret the Constitution at least as far as such an interpretation can help guide our political choices. At a minimum, this means we must ask whether to give priority to honoring “we the people” in our historic capacity as represented in the founding, or to honoring ourselves in our contemporary embodiment as represented in electoral returns, public polling, and democratic protest. These two broad instincts inform the major interpretative divide between those who adopt a relatively fixed “originalist” reading of the text and defenders of an evolving understanding of the Constitution as a “living” document. Neither approach is inherently more compatible with Christian teaching than the other, and each can be utilized to defend justice.

Christians might offer something unique to the conversation by uniting originalist and living constitutionalist concerns: as “people of the Book” we understand what it means to live in light of a text. In applying our faith-born intuitions to Constitutional interpretation, we might follow the example of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Although Douglass deeply respected the accomplishments of the American people at the founding, he rejected the idea that “the people” in any given political moment were obliged to uphold any particular meaning of any specific clause of the Constitution simply because it could be shown to have been current at the moment of ratification. Instead, he argued that “we have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”* Usefulness, for Douglass, is not unprincipled pragmatism: the single greatest political utility depended upon the fulfillment of the aspirations listed in the Preamble of the Constitution “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The challenge for us is to extend these over all citizens without destroying the culture of lawfulness and respect for legal precedents that makes constitutionalism meaningful. Douglass unites elements from both major schools of interpretation in what we call “living originalism.”

*Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000), 193.

Trying Out Frederick Douglass' Approach

Adopting such an interpretive stance toward the Constitution may require us, as it did Douglass, to read between the lines at times, recognizing that our civic obligation to realize the aspirations of the Preamble may well change in relation to our collective capacity to do so. At the same time, it may also require that we recognize the inherent tensions among those aspirations and, resigning ourselves to the imprecise and imperfect nature of the system, to make tradeoffs among them as prudence requires.

To take one example of this approach, most Christians can agree on the sanctity of life as a matter of both theology and justice. However, from a constitutional perspective, they might or might not agree with Neil Gorsuch’s stated opposition to euthanasia and his argument that the best understanding of the Equal Protection Clause requires that we maintain “an exceptionless norm against the intentional taking of human life by private persons.”* Gorsuch may be right on the moral question, from a Christian standpoint, and equally wrong in insisting upon the resolution of that question within the Constitution rather than as a matter of political debate. On the other hand, Gorsuch’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in this case may well embody the sort of “living originalism” that we have ascribed to Douglass, looking as it does to the principle underlying the text, rather than focusing exclusively upon the historical contingencies surrounding it.

*Neil M. Gorsuch, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 157.

Supreme Court justices often surprise (and even confound) those who appoint them. We cannot know with any certainty how Gorsuch’s opinions will develop over time, nor should we insist that he speculatively commit to positions in the hearing process. Christian charity demands that even if we object to his interpretative approach, we remain at least open to the possibility that his positions are derived from sound legal reasoning and not simply political expediency. In conscience, we may urge our representatives to either support or oppose him: we may not, however, vilify him.

As a practical matter, Christian citizens ought not just respect the Constitution and those called to interpret it. Drawing on our experience as people of the Book, we ought to strive to live the underlying premises of the Constitutional text: to think and act in ways that apply our reason and faith to the law in such a way that we honor it through our day-to-day interactions with one another and our fellow citizens. Rather than viewing the Constitution as either a mere abstraction or a political tool, we can proactively work to ensure the realization of the promises of the preamble in the various spheres where we find ourselves. We can, for example, look upon the work of the policeman or the school teacher as contributing to domestic tranquility; that of the street sweeper, park ranger, or artist as to the general welfare. We can, in our private homes and relationships, work to advance the liberty of all by educating ourselves in the virtues required for self-government.


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Your Representatives Don't Live In Washington

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Your Representatives Don't Live In Washington

Body Politic reader Michael Searway shares his experiences working in a Congressional district office and what lessons we can learn for our civic lives today.

For the vast majority of Americans, who don’t live in or near our nation’s capital, Congress probably feels far away—in both a geographic and conceptual sense. But it’s a lot closer than you think. Each Member of Congress has at least one ‘district office’ located in their Congressional district—the area that they represent in their work in Washington. When the Member is at home, generally during a recess, that’s where they work—although they’re often travelling around their district during that time as well.

Most of the time, the district office is staffed only by case workers or field representatives. These staffers are chiefly responsible for helping the people of that district—referred to as "constituents"—with various requests that they might have, such as a problem with a federal agency. They will also convey messages from constituents or local groups and organizations to the Washington office, and vice versa. Of course, like Congressional staffers in Washington, the district office staff is often aided by interns, especially in the summer. I took on such an internship the summer before my senior year of college, working in the local office of my Congressman, George Radanovich, in California’s Central Valley. One of my primary responsibilities was responding to correspondence from constituents and passing their messages on to the local staff or our colleagues in Washington.

As a 21 year-old, I got to have some incredible conversations that summer and support several projects that I’m still proud of today. Unfortunately, though, I can still place the bulk of those letters and phone calls into one of maybe three categories—none of them very serious about civic engagement. At least a third of the complaints came from just a handful of constituents, who we came to know on a first-name basis. They generally included some conspiracy theories and related anti-everything screeds. Another third or so were expressions of opposition to a major immigration reform bill under consideration in Congress at the time; these messages, at least, dealt with legislation, but were generally more ‘anti-immigrant’ in tone than ‘anti-reform,’ and just barely touched on the actual substance of the law. Finally, about a quarter to a third were requests for White House and/or U.S. Capitol tours for constituents visiting Washington. (The tours are excellent and we strongly encourage you to reach out to your representative to arrange a tour if you are going to visit DC.)

All of this led me to a dual-natured, surprising discovery: Connecting with your Member of Congress is much more feasible, and effective, than you might think—yet this channel remains vastly underused by most U.S. residents. So if our political system is broken, we need to blame ourselves as much as the politicians and other professionals that run the country’s government and political machinery.

Of course, we don’t. In the United States, we regularly, mistakenly think that our civic duty begins and ends on Election Day. Or, put another way, we often think that "democracy" equals "voting" (though even by this low standard we perform pretty poorly). But we live in a representative democracy, where we don’t actually vote directly on most major matters of public life—we choose ‘representatives’ to do that for us, at the national as well as local and state levels. While we can simply lend these men and women our vote and then leave them alone for a couple years, they need our ongoing input if they are to adequately represent us.

That’s what Congressional district offices are for. The staffers are there to help constituents, but they’re also there to gather input. Our Members of Congress need our phone calls, our visits, our letters, our emails, our faxes. They need our voices—and preferably our faces too. Now sure, it’s easy to come up with excuses for not reaching out to your district office—I could fill a separate listicle with them. But if you do decide not to engage, you have to also put aside your Election Day complaints and accept that your more-engaged neighbors and interest groups are shaping our national and community discussions. As I look back on the summer of 2007 and those anti-immigration calls and letters, I can see early traces of the (understandably) angry groundswell that has brought Donald Trump to the White House. Those voices intensified and consolidated during and after the Great Recession, resulting in a message heard by all of Washington, the country, and the world.

From what I hear from my friends who still work for Congress, constituent correspondence has greatly increased since last November. Let’s make sure this isn’t just a post-election or post-inauguration spike. The 115th Congress will be here for the next two years, the Trump Administration for at least the next four. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, don’t just tune out until the next elections. By all means vote, but understand that by the time the polling places open, it’s almost too late to have a constructive influence.

Again, a healthy representative democracy requires engaged citizens; we have both an opportunity and an obligation to keep our leaders informed about the districts and communities they represent. And we can do much to dial down the loud, divisive rhetoric that has dominated our country over the past few years. Start by finding your closest Congressional office (or at least its phone number) and having a conversation with the staffers or interns that work there. They’ll probably be surprised to see you, and you’ll probably be surprised at how they listen.


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