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.
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.
Are you interested in learning more about the idolatries that make it hard to witness to people who disagree with you? Consider supporting our work. Your donations help us produce articles, classes and Bible study guides that equip Christians for discipleship and witness in the public square.
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.
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?
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
The following article is the transcript of a homily delivered by pastor and Body Politic reader Rev. Dr. Richard Hyde earlier this year. Rev. Hyde served as Associate Chaplain of Dartmouth College and pastored small churches in New England and California, earned a master's degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School and a doctorate in religion and public life from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and has lectured at the School of Advanced International Studies and the State Department. He is currently Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Gray, Maine.
This is the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday after Pentecost that we number as such. Next Sunday is the 27th Sunday after Pentecost, but we celebrate it as the Feast of Christ the King, an anticipation of Advent, the season of four weeks during which we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ the King, the Messiah, the Savior, Our Lord.
We have had an election. It was one of the most bitter in our history. One has to go back to the elections of 1800, 1828 and 1860 to find anything so bitter and contentious. I sometimes think that we have become so good at running powerful and often negative political campaigns that we are destroying our ability to accomplish anything and might even be destroying our ability to be one nation. Ambrose Bierce, the 19th Century American author of the Devil’s Dictionary, defined politics as the systematic organization of hatreds. It’s a definition that is supposed to make one laugh, but it’s not as funny as it once was, because that is so obviously what politics has become.
Whether this election was ultimately a triumph or a tragedy for you, I hope that you will be humbled or comforted by the good news of the gospel that God is in charge of history, that God is the one who saves us from ourselves and who deserves our ultimate trust. The Christian Church has seen presidents and prime ministers and kings come and we have seen them go. We celebrate the triumph of Christ in good times and bad and the times in between.
For our worship today I chose some very important verses from this very important Letter of Paul to the Romans and some very surprising verses from the Book of Job, what is otherwise one of the gloomiest books in the Bible, to help us finish the season of Pentecost and look forward to celebration of Christ the King.
These verses are perhaps the most comforting in the Bible. We always need to hear some words of comfort.
The verse from Job has become famous because of Handel’s Messiah.
“I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth”
This is the Gospel in miniature, as good as John 3:16 - “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son” - and I never get tired of hearing it. What an amazing premonition it is of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. I look forward to hearing it sung at Christmastime every year and never listen to it otherwise so as not to detract from how special it is. I know it’s not Christmas yet, but with the Holly Fair next week – close enough.
Then we turn to Paul for some lines even more magnificent although they have not been set to music:
...in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This news is still good some 2000 years after Paul announced it. In this time of great national divisiveness, we need to hear and share this good news. And since Christ is with us, may we dare to share the good news with those who need to hear it and with those with whom we may not have much in common.
I have read many thoughts about the recent election and our current predicament, but the best I have found were written down some 50 years ago, by British theologian John Stott:
“Our Christian habit is to bewail the world’s deteriorating standards with an air of rather self-righteous dismay. We criticize its violence, dishonesty, immorality, disregard for human life, and materialistic greed. ‘The world is going down the drain,’ we say with a shrug. But whose fault is it? Who is to blame?
Let me put it like this. If the house is dark when the night falls, there is not sense in blaming the house; that is what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is: “Where is the light?” Similarly, the meat goes bad and becomes inedible, there is not sense in blaming the meat; that is what happens when bacteria are left alone to breed. The question to ask is, ‘Where is the salt?’
Just so, if society deteriorates and its standards decline, till it becomes like a dark night or stinking fish, there is no sense in blaming society; that is what happens when fallen men and fallen women are left to themselves, and human selfishness is unchecked. The question to ask is, ‘Where is the church? Why are the salt and light of Jesus Christ not permeating and changing our society?’ It is sheer hypocrisy on our part to raise our eyebrows, shrug our shoulders or wring our hands. The Lord Jesus told us to be the world’s salt and light. If darkness and rottenness abound, it is largely our fault and we must accept the blame.”
I do not wish to lay a heavy burden on us this morning, but the nation needs healing and we know that our Redeemer liveth and he shall stand at the latter day on the earth. We need to bring this good news to our neighbors, to the people we like and the people we dislike. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us.
The first person I texted the morning after the election was my gay Muslim friend.
“I am sorry.”
He replied, “Thanks. We’re in this together.”
I hadn’t even voted for Trump. As a black woman, my demographic overwhelmingly wasn't about that. When polled, 90% of black women said they planned to vote and 94% of us voted for Clinton. But, I am not only a black woman; I am also an evangelical Christian and I felt it’d be good for my friend to hear those words of concern from one of us that morning when what he was used to hearing from us sounded, to him, like ill will.
If there is anything my blackness has conditioned me to do, it is to think in terms of we and not I. Call it the gift of the outsider.
In This Together
My friend and I don’t appear to have much in common. He is Muslim, I am Christian. He is male, I am female. He is gay, I am straight. We are, however, both "hyphenated Americans" and, as minorities, we bear similar scars from others’ phobias and -isms. We come to each other’s defense. When I’m most vulnerable to feeling isolated, I often feel more “in it together” with him than with my white Christian male friends: This summer, when Rep. Steve King asked, rhetorically, what non-Europeans have contributed to civilization, my friend didn't merely disagree with his remarks--he nearly exhausted himself defending the contributions of people of color to society, showing an impressive depth of knowledge about black history. Without being asked, he would offer support after tragedy struck the black community. And rather than complain about protests inconveniencing his commute, he would join them. What was perhaps most comforting was that I did not have to explain to him why and when I could use support in the first place.
When grief and injustice strike the black community, finding a white Christian shoulder to help carry that burden feels like the search for Atlantis, so I’ve learned to stop looking. Instead, I turn to fellow Christians of color—any color—for support.
With my white brothers and sisters in Christ, it rarely feels like we're in this together. Yet the command for this could not be clearer: “Carry each others’ burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) In fact, it feels like not even the normal rules apply. When my grandmother died earlier this year, I got sympathy. When a black person is wrongfully killed somewhere across the country, my appeals for support are often met with silence or defensiveness. Perhaps they don’t understand that this, too, is a special and personal type of grief. John Metta said it best:
“To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people. We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot.”
The death my grandmother died is still 50 years in my future; the death of Renisha McBride could be mine tomorrow.
The U.S. church does not usually do “we’re in this together” well when it comes to race. But we need to. Not for my feelings’ sake but for the sake of the church itself and its witness to the world. Frankly, neither my feelings nor yours should be my principle concern. What I should care more about than either of those is the body of Christ. And while society might not have lavished opportunities on my white Christian brothers and sisters to naturally develop empathy as generously as it has given to blacks and other people of color and minorities, God nevertheless demands it of all his people.
A Church Divided
Martin Luther King, Jr. called it a “shameful tragedy” that the most segregated hour in America was eleven o’clock Sunday morning. Though the bond between Christians should be stronger than any other, race divides the church even when people of color show up and nest ourselves amongst the “other.” Often, by choosing to worship in majority white churches, we waive access to support we might more easily get elsewhere. A friend once suggested I find more black friends to get the support that I needed. What I need more than more black friends is for the church to be the church. While I may enjoy common interests and diversions with my white friends, that “brother born of adversity” is nowhere to be found when that adversity is of the racial injustice variety. The friend who is loving at all other times suddenly strains and fails to endure all things and not be proud or self-seeking.
Towards the end of his public ministry, Jesus prayed for his believers “that all of them may be one.” Why? So that the world may believe that God had sent him. The world’s belief in his ministry would hinge on our unity. That he would stake so much on his church coming together—especially to show it’s tensile strength where it was most likely to fracture—confirms its strategic importance in advancing the gospel. Unity advances God’s kingdom; disunity is a coveted win for the enemy. To destroy the church’s witness, undermine its unity.
We would do well to remember that on earth we work for God’s campaign and we are His ground team.
The Bond of Peace
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Paul says that peace and unity are of a kind. And Jesus, opening his sermon on the mount, called the peacemakers blessed, for they will be called children of God.
Active conflict is not the only way to display disunity. In fact, the Israelites were thrice rebuked for a more pernicious and deceitful threat: false peace. The Lord came down hard on them in Jeremiah:
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.”
To the wounded today this slipshod bandaging takes many shapes: Accusing others of making everything about race. Claiming racism doesn't exist. False equivalencies. Attempting to disprove prejudice through tokenism. Further burdening the marginalized by making them responsible for reconciling on the terms of the empowered. Disinterest. Complacency. Complicity. Defensiveness. Silence. Retreating to the comfort of privilege. Making light of the invisible weight of otherness. Insisting you have what you have through sheer effort and determination alone. Praising--and taking for granted--the forgiveness of the aggrieved while not demanding the repentance of the aggressors. Extending the benefit of the doubt to only those who look like you. Questioning the legitimacy of any experience that differs from yours. Resisting rebuke. Refusal to open your “I” to the Jesus-affirming fellowship of “we.”
These are neither the words or actions of peace-loving people but of comfort-loving people. Woe to those who are comfortable.
Ironically, “we” thinking is not uncommon amongst my nonreligious liberal peers. They, though unbound by Biblical mandate and unaided by the Holy Spirit, carry not just my burdens but the burdens of others who in many ways are not like them. I've long wondered why so many who don’t know God pursue racial justice with such vigor, yet we who find both reason and resource in Christ do not.
Sorry But Not Guilty
Maybe it’s just me. I come from a military family and when I lived in China, I befriended a woman from Hiroshima. When I first met her, I felt awkward, even though I hadn’t personally dropped a bomb on her hometown. Later when I visited Hiroshima with her, I was translating a travel guide from English for her as we created our itinerary and as place after place had been destroyed by US military I would interrupt my translating to say sorry.
Another of my best friends is a Vietnamese woman I lived with in Southeast Asia for a year. My grandpa fought in Vietnam. I remember the night this came up over dinner and the mood went from lively to somber. I didn’t say to my friend when she showed me pictures of the residual human cost of the war, “Hey, I’m only 33. I’ve never killed a person in my life. Vietnam wasn’t my fault. Maybe you guys deserved it.” None of that. But these are the kind of responses I get to confessions of racial trauma. I can’t apologize on behalf of America or on behalf of our military and that's not really what I was doing. I apologized for the pain my group had inflicted on her people. It didn’t matter to me that it wasn’t my fault. This was my friend and the damage was real, her feelings were real, and my sympathy was real.
The Curse of Individualism
Earlier this year, my plan to read through the Bible in chronological order got waylaid in Leviticus. But, at two months and just four chapters in, I came across a passage about the collective unintentional guilt of the Israelite community:
“If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realize their guilt and the sin they committed becomes known, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the tent of meeting.”
Moses, in giving the rules for proper worship and sacrifice said that a blameless living sacrifice must be offered for both sins of a group and sins committed unintentionally.
As Americans, our individualism is a matter of national pride. In the same article cited above about Blacks thinking in terms of Blacks, Metta contrasts that with white thinking: “White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.” Individualism that inhibits Christian unity displeases God. Paul urges the Christians in Philippi to take Jesus as their example, “Each of you should look not only to your own interest, but also to the interests of others.”
Wounds From a Friend Can Be Trusted But An Enemy Multiplies Kisses
I am not off the hook in this quest for unity, either. I perpetuate false peace. As Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India, said: "If I fear to hold another to the highest goal because it is so much easier for me to avoid doing so, then I know nothing of Calvary love." If I weary in the pursuit of true unity to preserve my feelings; if, in buckling under the strain, I capitulate to ease my discomfort rather than look to Jesus who yokes himself with me and offers rest; if I put my hurt feelings before the good of the church; if I am content to abandon the true beauty, well-being, and wholeness of the body because I cannot see with eyes of faith that God brings fruit in His time and in His ways I am just as guilty of peddling counterfeit peace.
As necessary as the Holy Spirit is in uncovering the biases in our hearts, the work of bearing patiently with our brothers and sisters in love can no more be done without it.
We must, whether through tears, tiredness, hardship, misunderstandings, slow and labored strides, and the smallest seedlings of faith, continue to point our brothers and sisters toward justice because this is not simply our cause-- it is the Lord’s. We can not consider ourselves above being patient with those who are slow to learn for we can find no example for that in the life and love of Jesus. While our otherness has perhaps primed us more easily for empathy, it is a gift given that we may exercise it. We are stewards of the sensibilities that that gift endows and from those to whom much is given, much is required. Let us be instruments of grace.
Do Not Grow Weary In Doing Good, For At The Proper Time We Will Reap A Harvest If We Do Not Give Up
To my fellow weary Christians of color, I know that the world will whisper in your ear, "You owe them nothing.” There is no ear among the church unvisited by this lie. But Ephesians 4:25 says otherwise--we are members of one another. 1 Corinthians 12:21-26 says the eye cannot say to the hands, "I do not need you" and the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. God has put the parts of the body together so that there should be no division but that its parts should have equal care for each other. If one part suffers every part suffers with it.”
We are no less caught in the clutches of injustice than they in the clutches of privilege. We, as people of color, may suffer our scourge publicly while our white brothers and sisters suffer a no less unyielding yet subtle perversion. Ours leaves its lashes on our bodies and deprives us of opportunities on earth while theirs, though often undiagnosed, is never without effect on their soul. I cannot help but think of Jesus’ words that it is hard for the rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven and I cannot help but see why.
So let’s be in this together. I promise to do my best not to strain even if you don't promise to reflect.
At the start of a new presidential administration, the Center for Christian Civics held a national conference call to pray for those who are dreading the new era in American politics and those who are eager for it.
This call features Rev. Mike Park of Grace Downtown in Washington, DC, and Center for Christian Civics Executive Director Rick Barry. Our next call will be held Tuesday, January 24, 2017.
Join Our Next Call
Caleb Paxton is the Founder of Liberatus, a weekly journal about bringing Truth and Beauty to American politics, written by people on the inside. Before starting Liberatus in March 2015, he worked on Capitol Hill, with campaigns for state and federal office, and for grassroots issue advocacy nonprofits.
If you’ve spent any time following politics, you’ve likely heard candidates giving their stump speech use the phrase, “Run it like a business.” It’s a common refrain aimed at solving dysfunction, whether in Congress, the Executive Branch, or government bureaucracy.
Having worked in Congress, on the campaign trail, and for political nonprofits over the past decade, I do believe we can learn how to do our work well by looking at other areas of our culture, including business. But what we miss when we think of Congress as a business is that it is not a business. It is, in fact, a Congress. A representative body should function as a representative body.
Monologues to an Empty Room
When you take a tour of the U.S. Capitol, there’s a short video you can watch before you leave the visitor center and take the escalator up into the center of the free world. It’s a bit epic in tone, and there’s a point where the narrator declares, “Congress is where we find our common ground.” Except it isn’t—not really, or not often enough. Despite the founder’s intention of creating a place where everyone from Upstate South Carolina to downtown San Francisco can come to find common ground, to make this fifty-state experiment of representative government work, instead we come with agendas that exclude other people from the outset. Instead of the House Floor being a place where we give and take ideals and ideas, reason together, and explore the nuances of policy, it’s often an empty chamber: if you’re lucky enough to get a staff-led tour, you can sit on the House Floor or touch the lecterns where Members regularly give speeches to no one.
The truth is, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and all the rest didn’t form a nation by delivering monologues to an empty room in Philadelphia. They didn’t go back to their home states thankful they said the right things to get sent back to Philly to do it all over again. And they weren’t obsessed with gaining power as much as they were focused on creating a nation.
But today, we run Congress like a business: offices focus on their long-term survival, and Members raise hundreds of thousands in capital to fund re-election. It’s true that the bottom line of campaigning is getting votes, but the bottom line of governing, similar to the nonprofit sector, is wisdom: governing well so humanity can flourish.
And if you’re a follower of Jesus and you work in politics, the great relief of the gospel is that we can view our work outside the categories of money, power, and the passing pressures of how an agenda fits in the current news cycle. We can turn our work into a work of art.
Congress As It Was Meant To Be
Congress is known for a near-constant approval rating of fifteen percent. And while the daily challenge is creating a place where representatives of 435 slices of America come together and vote on real world policies that affect millions of people, it could become a world-class institution despite the seeming inevitable gridlock.
I firmly believe that a Congress with an eighty percent approval rating is possible—but it would look totally different from what we see today. I think the day-to-day tasks would change to meet the challenge of governing well.
What would it look like if Congress became a world-class institution, and how do we end the gridlock? What would running Congress like a Congress look like in real life?
We have to begin by reassessing what we value. If followers of Jesus believe they are image-bearers of a great artist-creator, then they would live a bigger story than the failed us vs them dialogue that’s plaguing the major parties. If we truly believe in living in a democratic republic, how we govern and how we debate the issues should matter more to us than winning—or spinning—the debate at all costs to gain power. We would value honest, factual debate. We all want our voices to be heard, but do we still want everyone else’s voices to be heard, too? Or would we rather shut opposing views out of the conversation altogether? There are real incentives to shut them out: It’s easier to galvanize support when you cast the other side as a problem to be eliminated instead of partners in finding a solution, but doing so sacrifices detailed debate .
We would also elevate creativity in our work culture. And I believe that creative work, by nature of being creative, would be focused on achieving specific objectives, looking at our work with a long-term view, regardless of what headlines and talking heads are saying. Greater focus in work priorities in Congress would also help heal and elevate political rhetoric, encouraging Members of Congress and others to spend extended periods of time actually debating issues, with talking points backed up by factual research. We would finally be able to begin responding to each other’s specific points, rather than just talking past each other out of a worn playbook of canned, over-used zingers.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we would care about the personal well-being of those doing the work to make Congress function as a great representative body. Burnout is a constant problem on Capitol Hill, and staffers are expendable because there’s no long-term objectives for which to retain them. However, prioritizing specific objectives would require empowering those working in Congress to do the work necessary to achieve the focused work and the factual debate. The culture of Capitol Hill would change from Member-as-celebrity, to Member-as-visionary, and therefore human beings would be valued as human beings, and not expendable young staffers who can be taken advantage of to further the careers and power quests of those they support.
These ideas are neither our ultimate savior, nor are they completely out of reach. Anyone working in American politics can run forward with the visionary mantra, “of, by, and for the people.” Members of Congress and their staffs can begin to change the usual political narrative, offering the country a view of governance that’s better than they would otherwise expect today. I believe a beautiful representative government is possible, both in our speech and in our day-to-day values and actions. We can indeed run Congress like a Congress.
Want to commit to praying for the work of your Congressional representative, as well as for your local and state-level government officials? Join us for our next prayer call!
"What the heck am I supposed to do this election season?”
A lot of people were wondering that this year. And what our faith means for our approach to government is something Christians in any democracy need to wrestle with over and over again as the climate around us changes and develops. That’s why we officially launched the Center for Christian Civics this past June: to empower our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out the gospel clearly and compellingly in their civic lives, across the country and across political lines.
As the year draws to a close, I want to take a moment to share some highlights from our first six months and give you a look at what we’re planning for the year ahead.
Over the course of the summer and fall, we provided support, coaching and resources to congregants, pastors and leaders in over 50 churches around the country. Our team also spent a good amount of time in 2016 leading classes on faith, politics and church community at congregations and schools in five states. These Bible study guides, books and classes were received excitedly across the board—after every class, attendees said that they’d never heard anything like it! I’d like to quickly share with you feedback we got from a participant in one of our classes in upstate New York:
“The workshop wonderfully highlighted the difference between what is ultimate—God’s word—and what is important, but not ultimate—politicians, policies, and earthly power. The event reminded me that other Christians deeply understood this, even if they hold different political views from me. This was a powerful example of church unity and challenged me to more actively build this unity within the broader church.”
How exciting it is to know that people are leaving our workshops not just better equipped to honor the gospel in their own public lives, but to foster a broader community that does the same!
Many people also expressed a desire to learn how to pray for this subject in a biblical way. So in response, we launched an ongoing series of national prayer conference calls. These calls connect believers around the country with patient, balanced guidance in how to pray for the health of our country, the flourishing of our elected officials, and the effect the political process has on our church communities. The response has been great, and I’m excited to officially announce that we will be continuing these calls in 2017.
What to Expect Next Year
But these prayer calls aren’t the only thing we have planned for next year—I want you to be among the first to hear about four new projects we’re planning for 2017:
In the run-up to the election, we had to slow down our blog, The Body Politic, to focus on getting some of our election-season resources off the ground. But in 2017, we will be publishing more articles than ever on The Body Politic and drawing on an even wider range of writers. This will include an increased focus on the practical tools of civic education. Even more noteworthy, though, is that we’ll also be launching a new companion podcast in the first quarter of 2017! The Body Politic Podcast will highlight worthwhile teaching on faith and politics from churches and Christian schools around the country, as well as interviews and conversations with members of the Center for Christian Civics community.
Next, our team will be producing and releasing all-new Bible study guides for small groups who want a safe way to kick-start conversations about what it means for the church to cross political barriers. These shorter topical guides will cover topics like the divide between urban and rural sensibilities in our culture and the idolatries that make it hard to get along with people who don’t share your politics. (Our first Bible study guide, which examined how the gospel transforms the way we react to apocalyptic campaign rhetoric, will continue to be available, as well!)
We will begin providing focused guidance and mentorship to future church leaders. The first step in this process will be launching a new internship program. Over the course of the year, four college students and two pastors-in-training will have the chance to receive mentorship and instruction from the Christian Civics staff and board. We’re excited to begin providing these interns with practical discipleship by giving them a structured way to begin putting the things people talk about in our classes and workshops into practice in real ways.
Lastly, in 2017 we’ll be piloting new projects designed to foster fruitful fellowship between Christians across some of the biggest divides in U.S. politics: The divides between our country’s urban, suburban and rural communities. It can often feel like people in cities and people in small towns aren’t even speaking the same language, but scripture tells us that every tribe and tongue will be represented in the Kingdom. We’re excited to be part of the Spirit’s work, giving us a foretaste of that kingdom in the here and now.
Of course, none of this can happen without your involvement, and there are a few ways we’d love for you to help:
- First, we’d truly appreciate you supporting our work by including us in your end-of-year giving. Would you make a year-end donation today?
- Second, we ask that you’d join us on our journey through 2017 by becoming a monthly donor. Year-end gifts are absolutely crucial for kick-starting our work in the new year, but we can’t expand our team or budget responsibly without financial partners providing consistent encouragement and support. Please become a monthly donor in 2017.
- Third, subscribe to our mailing list and use our prayer calls and monthly newsletters to guide prayer at your church, in your small group, or with your friends and family.
- And lastly, pray for our staff and volunteers. Helping the church forge a new path forward in the way that we exist in the public square is going to be the long, hard work of a generation. Our staff, volunteers and supporters won’t be able to equip their communities effectively without the support of other prayer warriors around the country.
Thanks so much for your time, your prayers and your support. I’m more excited for 2017 than I think I’ve ever been excited for a new year. If you want to know more about other ways you can support our work or be a part of it, I’d love to hear from you—don’t hesitate to contact us.
On Behalf of the Christian Civics team
Our last prayer call, which was held on December 6, ended abruptly in an unfortunate technical difficulty that was beyond our control.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we were unable to secure a recording of the entire call. However, we did manage to salvage a recording of the first prayer on the call, which came from Center for Christian Civics co-founder Daniel Leiva, who led us in prayer for the health of our political and governmental processes.
We're sorry again to everyone who joined us on the call and got disconnected abruptly. We've been assured by the conference call service that it won't happen again.
Join Us for Our Next Call
Following the U.S. elections on November 8, the Center for Christian Civics hosted a national conference call, where men and women from around the country joined us in prayer for the health of our country and the effect of the election on our church communities. You can listen to the recording of the most recent conference call at the top of this article, or join us for the next call on Tuesday, December 6, at 12:30 PM EST.
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.
“I give God 10%. Why should I give you 15?”
I have to admit that I am an avid reader of service industry horror-story blogs like Not Always Right, and I think they have helped me become a better and more considerate customer. But as a Christian, my heart sinks when I see a story on one of these blogs about ministry leaders or church groups treating their servers poorly, and even declining to tip at all. One high-profile example, which broke out of the service industry blogs and into the broader press, was of a St. Louis pastor who declined to tip, citing that a standard tip was more than a Biblical tithe. "I give God 10%," the receipt read, "why should I give you 18?"
Since today is #GivingTuesday--a day set aside by the internet to make charitable contributions in the wake of the decadence of Black Friday and Cyber Monday–it seems like as good a time as any to investigate this concept of tithing and generosity. And since high-level conversations about the shape and priorities of the next presidential administration are taking place as we speak, it makes sense to use Giving Tuesday as an excuse to think briefly about what the Bible’s standards for generosity mean for the way we conduct ourselves corporately.
Before the Tithe
In Old Testament times, God’s people were law-bound to certain economic practices and uses of their resources that limited their income even before they tithed. Perhaps the most famous of these practices is the keeping of the Sabbath. Many of us in the west, where shift work is common and one or two days off a week are standard amenities even for many non-shift-based jobs, may initially have a hard time understanding the economic implications of the Sabbath. But for one day every week, God’s people were forbidden from performing economically beneficial work. For a mostly agrarian society where salaried positions really didn’t exist, the amount of time you put into tending your fields had a direct effect on the viability of your crops and the size of your yield, or the number of days you put into laboring directly translated into the amount of money you earned. Honoring the Sabbath for ancient Israel meant deliberately foregoing some of your income.
What is perhaps most shocking to those of us who live in a society wherein economic benefit is often considered the same thing as social benefit, scripture tells us that this rule limiting Israel’s economic activity was put in place for the good of man (“the Sabbath was made for man, man was not made for the Sabbath”). Their economic sacrifices were meant to give them space to worship and tend to their relationships in focused manners. Though western culture has largely nodded toward the biblical Sabbath in the form of weekends, for most people the weekends are still a time of commerce--shopping for some, working at shops for others, and putting in the hard work of tending fields or a thousand other forms of service and labor for still others. More than that, even many who ostensibly have weekends off regularly feel pressured to check our work email, spend time doing office work at home, or tend to “side hustles” every day we aren’t in the office.
Old Testament Israelites were bound by the law to sacrifice a significant portion of their careers and economic productivity through their practice of the Sabbath. But it didn’t end there: Even as they tended and harvested their fields the other six days of the week, they were not allowed to harvest them entirely. Leviticus 19:9-10 lays out restrictions on how much economic benefit they were allowed to reap, for the sake of ensuring that they were creating opportunity for others:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
This passage specifies that leaving enough in your fields for others to glean is a requirement for the benefit of the poor and the foreigners, while other Old Testament passages add widows and orphans to this list.
So, before they even could consider what to do with the fruit of their work and productivity, Old Testament believers had to deliberately limit their productivity for the sake of their worship, for the sake of their relationships, and for the sake of those around them who were poorer or more marginalized than themselves. These laws were in place not just for the Israelites who were living in times of prosperity in their own lands, but also for Israelites who were captured and living as exiles in Babylon and in Persia.
But once you account for those sacrifices, Israelites just had to donate a tenth of their harvest or economic product and then they were good, right?
The Old Testament law actually mandated believers to tithe three times on their income: once for the sake of maintaining the temple and paying the tribe who works there; once for the annual sacrifices and feasts; and once to fund the community’s further care for the poor, the immigrant, the widow and the orphan:
“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting … For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”
Numbers 18:21, 24
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lordyour God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household. And you shall not neglect the Levite who is within your towns, for he has no portion or inheritance with you.
“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do."
All in, these three tithes amounted to approximately 20-30% of an Israelite’s (already reduced) income each year.
Christian Generosity Today
Of course, how these Old Testament laws translate into the lives of Christian believers in the modern U.S. is an open question: Is the Sabbath as clear and courageous and evangelical of a statement in a society that already affirms the benefit of rest? Is there any kind of modern equivalent to gleaning in a post-industrial economy? In a representative democracy, do the social services made possible by our tax dollars serve the same function as the tithe to care for the “quartet of the vulnerable?” Christians of honest faith can disagree about the answers to these questions.
But when I hear people who claim the name of Jesus, who know God’s lavish grace, point to their tithe as the reason they don’t need to practice other generosity, I tend to think they have it wrong on two fronts:
First, “the” tithe, whichever tithe they are looking at, was only one among a constellation of procedures and strictures for generosity in the Old Testament. Those prescriptions were meant to be followed all together in a believer’s life for the sake of integrating him or her into a society in which members simultaneously declared they didn’t need to maximize their productivity and gave away a lavish portion of what they produced.
But even more than that, believers in the Christian era are called to run the race before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich. He didn’t set aside a tenth of his glory, spill a tenth of his blood, sacrifice a tenth of his life, raise from a tenth of a grave. As the common modern worship song points out, he gave his everything. If we want to follow this Christ, we should begin being as ambitious about our hospitality and generosity as an athlete is about the next game or competition. Declaring that you are only “required” to give 10% is a tacit rejection of being grafted into the body of a Christ who gave 100% in his efforts to prepare a place for us and secure our access to it.
Today is Giving Tuesday. In the spirit of the day, I’d love for you to make an additional contribution to your local church, a contribution to another ministry that is tending to the needs of the poor in your town, and, yes, a contribution of $30 or more to Center for Christian Civics. (We really can't publish new articles or equip local ministries without your support.)
But this is also a blog about faith and civics, so I don’t think we should stop there. In the Old Testament, when they only had a glimpse of God’s goodness, God’s people were called to collaborate and conspire together to make his generosity and mercy felt. They were bound to a divine law that didn’t just ask them to be generous and hospitable in their personal lives--they were also called to bend the systems and processes of their social order toward mercy and hospitality, as well.
In the coming year, we will be encouraging you to begin getting involved with neighborhood groups, getting to know your local representatives and visiting the district offices of your Congressional representatives. Before you do, though, spend some time prayerfully considering what it would look like to “go public” with the Bible’s vision for holistic, ambitious mercy and generosity. What would a church community dedicated to sacrificial gratitude be like? If your neighborhood or town were in the news, what would you want the story to be about? How do you want a country that reflects your citizenship to conduct itself?
I pray that this Giving Tuesday is an opportunity not just to make a few donations, but for you and your Christian community to begin engaging in benevolent conspiracies, conspiracies to witness to Christ’s mercy and justice in your towns and states.
The Center for Christian Civics is preparing to expand our team and build new programming to help local churches around the country encourage and equip believers to carry their faith into the public square in ways that are life-giving and counter-cultural. But we can't do it without your support. Make a one-time Giving Tuesday donation today!
Every other week, Center for Christian Civics hosts national conference calls to pray for our country's politics and the way it affects our church communities. This prayer is a companion to our Election Day Prayer Call, held on November 8.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Lord of Hosts, you command your people to know the land you've carried them into, and to care for it, pursuing its peace and stability. However my brothers and sisters in Christ and I may feel about how last night's election ended up, I recognize that we have a mandate from you to be your Son's hands and feet in the world, healing wounds, caring for the disregarded, mending broken hearts and restoring the withered to vitality and strength. In every church, in every neighborhood, in every town or city, and in every state, this might look different, but there are also obvious wounds across the nation, gashes in the fabric of the society you commission your people to care for. If your Kingdom is going to be felt, we know that we must not shy away from these challenges.
Yet we are often complicit in making the problems around us worse, whether we realize it or not. We are sorry for the times we wished people who disagreed with us would just go away, or quietly acquiesce for the sake of our comfort. And we are sorry for our impatience, the times we've felt like the land you've called us into isn't worth your grace or our effort. Turn our hard hearts into hearts of flesh and give us opportunities to practice the disciplines of listening, of patience, of forbearance, and of generosity of spirit. This is frequently difficult but always necessary to living out your truths well in this land.
As the election fades and we move toward the new year and beyond, we ask you to prepare us for the work you would have us do demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit in our communities and in our country. We want to seek the peace and well-being of the cities into which you have sent us, not just for our own well-being, but for the sake of testifying to your ability to build up, empower and promote flourishing. We want to make you visible, make your name renowned, and make broken hearts grateful for your presence.
We pray these things in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ, who is coming in glory.
How We Might Feel
Some of us are jubilant about the results of November 8. Some of usare despondent. Both reactions need to be tempered.
Jubilation needs to be tempered by humility. Despondency needs to be tempered by hope. In both cases King Jesus must do the tempering.
In the first case, the case of the jubilant among us, Jesus will temper that joy by whispering to us that no human rule can possibly approach the beauty, perfection, power, and permanence of his. He will whisper that there are bound to be enormous flaws in a Trump presidency and a Republican congress. We will be glad perhaps, but we will know not to be too glad.
In the second case, the case of the despondent among us, Jesus will temper the despair by whispering that he has not ceased to rule our country even if we think a Trump presidency and a Republican congress are a disaster—or even if they actually do prove to be disastrous. He will whisper that he rules in all things for our good, even really tough things.
What We Need To Do
Depending on where we are emotionally as a result of yesterday's vote, Jesus' marching orders will be different. If we are happy, we will need to seek out the brother or sister who is despondent and ask them why. We will need to do this for at least two reasons: First because Paul tells us to "weep with those who weep." Our bonds within the church, across party lines, should be deeper than our bonds within the politics we have chosen. The cross and the Spirit guarantee that the church will outlast every other human community and we are duty bound to demonstrate that now. There is a second reason we need to "cross the aisle" at church the morning after. The shape of the victory we are celebrating is bound to be flawed in ways that we may not have the eyes to see, certainly not fully. We will need the insight of our grieving brother or sister to be change agents within the political community we inhabit.
Jesus' marching orders for us if we are despondent are different. In this case he will tell us not to withdraw into our despondency. He will tell us to keep loving our neighbors as ourselves as best we can. Love and hope, not anger and despair, are the proper wellsprings of all Christian behavior. Read the latter part of Romans 8 and you will see this. There Paul writes of "nakedness, famine, the sword, and hostile powers"—and yet he writes in a tone that rings with confident joy. Knowing that "nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in our Lord Jesus Christ" sets a song in his heart. That song needs to be ours as well and, when it is, it will keep us engaged with our neighbors, seeking to love them as we love ourselves, even if their political jubilation seems utterly unwarranted. And it will keep us especially engaged with those among the jubilant who are fellow believers, for when Paul writes that nothing will separate "us" from the love of God in Christ, he means "us"—all of us.
Neither triumphalism nor despair has any place in the Christian's heart. When they rise to prominence, as they often do on election morning, it can only be because we are in danger of abandoning our first love. And when we do that we undermine the mission of the church, which is to surprise the world into taking Jesus seriously because of the love we show towards each other.
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On today's special Election Day prayer call, we welcomed two great guests to lead us in fifteen minutes of prayer.
Rev. Chuck Garriott lead us off by praying for the men and women serving in or running for office. His prayer was informed by his decades of caring for the spiritual needs of people who work in politics, which he does as the head of Ministry to State. If you work in politics or government in the DC area, we encourage you to reach out to them through their website for more information on their work.
Rev. Scotty Smith is an author, pastor and Teacher in Residence at West End Community Church in Franklin, TN. His latest book is Every Season Prayers: Gospel-Centered Prayers for the Whole of Life.
We'll be following this up tomorrow with an additional prayer here on the blog.
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.
“Don’t tell anyone here, but my husband and I are Democrats.”
I had just gotten to Ohio to spend a month and a half working on a general election campaign, and I wanted to spend my last free night in prayer and worship. Thankfully, a church down the street from my office had a sign advertising a Bible study meeting that night. When introducing myself, I casually mentioned which candidate I was in town for, and after the meeting, while everyone mingled over coffee and cookies, a woman pulled me aside and told me her political leanings in hushed, conspiratorial tones.
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”—were largely divided on how we thought our ancient faith could speak to our modern politics. The reigning paradigm for how to understand politics was through the lens of culture war, a belief that because our political process was divided into two competing camps, Christians had to either decide which team to join or explain why we were sitting it out.
Two Groups At Odds
The most visible battalion of Christians in the culture wars was the conservative Religious Right. If our parties are coalitions of groups with tenuously related interests working together, then the Religious Right shrugged their shoulders about trade policy and corporate tax rates in exchange for the GOP’s support on issues like honoring the fact that God knits people together in their mothers’ wombs, promoting a structure for the family that honors God’s Edenic commissions, and preventing the marginalized from becoming wards of the state.
A usually quieter faction, which included my newfound friends in Ohio, were drawn to the Democratic party’s skepticism of the love of money, more dovish approach to military policy, and more merciful stances toward the poor and marginalized. Christians on the left generally tried not to think too much about the progressive movement’s increasingly troubling record on freedom of religion and conscience, disregard for historical social norms, or lack of concern for global Christian persecution.
Dividing into these factions had some distinct advantages: It provided frames 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—we could just join in the kinds of rallies, protests and campaigning that were already happening on our side of the aisle. Eventually, advocacy groups like the 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 by viewing politics as a dualistic, zero-sum, either/or battle and then choosing sides in it, we left ourselves open to a host of excesses, mistakes and sins. Among the most notable was the sin of tribalism, of re-creating our culture’s divisions and enmities inside our churches. The couple at the Bible study in Ohio thought that the other church members would question the sincerity of their faith if their status as Democrats was discovered. And I can’t blame them, because for my entire (and brief) Christian life up to that point, I had seen my brothers and sisters consider the boundaries between their partisan camps to be uncrossable. Two years earlier, when I was still in college and just starting to try to figure out what my new faith meant for the way I vote, I was told by one circle of Christians that real Christians actually vote for Democrats, and then just days later told by another group that Christians can only honestly support Republicans.
Brash college students and small churches in the Midwest aren’t the only members of the faith prone to assuming that people who are like them in one way should probably be like them in other ways: Christian author Eric Metaxas was part of the final panel at the end of a day-long event for evangelical leaders held here in DC two years ago. The program included several powerful bi-partisan conversations—including one between Republican Frank Wolf and Democrat Tony Hall and another between SoJourners’ Jim Wallis and the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks. Yet in the final panel on the agenda, Metaxas casually discussed “our duty as conservatives” with the room full of faith leaders.
The church, which is supposed to be scattered everywhere as ambassadors to this world but comfortable nowhere as citizens of another, had pretty successfully conformed to the cultural divisions of U.S. politics. There was no man or woman, Jew or Greek, free or slave in Christ Jesus, but there was Republican and Democrat.
Two Odd Groups Out
Besides the Christian Right and the Christian Left, there were two other church battalions in the culture wars, noncombatants who I will call conscientious objectors and cynics.
The conscientious objectors were always dissatisfied with both options and held out hope for a morally purer one. Mark Noll, author of several books that I love, also demonstrated the conscientious objectors’ approach in his contribution to One Electorate Under God? In the essay, he articulates seven convictions about the public square he has arrived at through his faith and says that he won’t support a candidate for president whose platform doesn’t address those seven issues in a manner he agrees with. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable approach, but these kinds of political ultimatums are unrealistic and, at their heart, egotistical. In holding out for some kind of ultimate good (which our faith tells us will only actually come to pass when Christ returns), we abstain from contributing to any kind of (actually achievable) proximate good. This approach also encourages the Christian citizen to view himself or herself alone as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, despite the fact that our faith tells us we only see and understand the world through a glass dimly.
And lastly 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. At a class I led last month at a well-known evangelical church in New York City, one participant objected (in question form) to the idea of Christians voting for anyone at all. This summer’s infamous photo of Jerry Falwell Jr. giving the thumbs up to Donald Trump next to a framed issue ofPlayboy and the transparently selective morality of Falwell’s response to his critics (Asking, “Who are you to decide who is a sinner and who is not?” after building a career on identifying sinners) seemed to be a moment of crisis for many of my Facebook friends, teetering on the edge of dejection and cynicism. “If this is what happens to Christians who get involved in public life, then count me out!”
But conscientious objection and cynical withdrawal both mean living at odds with a fundamental aspect of God’s character as revealed in Christ. 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.
Toward a Scattered, Incoherent Unity
I don’t think the culture war framework is going to be useful for much longer. Too many evangelicals are now dissatisfied with the moral compromises that have always been inherent in it. Even for many devoted political conservatives, the potential of a pro-life justice on the Supreme Court is no longer worth supporting a presidential nominee who enthusiastically indulges in the love of money, boasts about adultery and sexual assault, and seems to delight in wielding power in abusive, un-Christ-like ways. Meanwhile, many Christians who usually support the Democratic party see their party ignore global Christian persecution and are concerned that their nominee openly advocated that voters hold their religious beliefs downstream from her party’s political program, belying a troublingly casual commitment to pluralism and religious freedom.
For all the frustration, anxiety and confusion that it has provoked, this protracted election season has at least (and at last) offered America’s evangelicals an opportunity to imagine a new approach to bringing their faith to bear on modern civic concerns. What could that look like? The most fundamental change we need to make is in the way we conceive of the church’s mission in the public square. Instead of doing battle in the political arena or passing judgment against it, we should do for politics what we try to do everywhere else in our lives: bear witness to it.
Our commitment to partisan triumphalism made it difficult for us to properly contend with the fact that our political system’s moral anthropology was 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 turned blind eyes to our allies’ ills while willfully discounting the ways in which our opponents might be good. A richer approach to the public square would not ask, “How can we gather as many Christians as possible into a single partisan camp?” Instead, it might ask, “How can the people of God demonstrate together how the fact of the cross and the empty tomb could change people—the kinds of people who are likely to be Democrat, or Republican, or independent, or apathetic?”
Our churches can be places where likely Democrats and likely Republicans (and, yes, likely independents) learn to disagree, perhaps strenuously, with each other, while still celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. They can be places where we learn to affirm the image of God in our opponents and challenge our allies clearly and coherently when they distort it. And we can learn to do all of these things humbly, tenaciously and lovingly. Whatever the left and the right look like after this election, we will still have Christians scattered across the political spectrum. The most important witnesses we can offer to the country around us is to make sure that they are more at peace with one another than they are with their partisan allies.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post
What could a dedicated conservative and a dedicated progressive possibly have in common? Last week, we invited high-level aides to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to show us. Bill Wichterman (special assistant to President Bush) and Michael Wear (director of faith outreach for President Obama's re-election campaign) came together to offer prayers for our political process and the effect it is having on our churches. You can listen to a complete recording of the call below, and don't forget to join us for the next call on election day!