Rev. Charles Drew is pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in New York City, an evangelical church serving Morningside Heights, New York, with a particular focus on Columbia Univeristy, other nearby schools, and the local poor. He is the author of The Ancient Love Song: Finding Christ in the Old Testament, A Journey Worth Taking: Finding Your Purpose in This World, and Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew.
About six weeks before the 2012 national elections our congregation in New York held a church-wide forum featuring two church members, one who was planning to vote Republican and another who was planning to vote Democrat. After declaring how they were going to vote, the panelists spent some time explaining their positions to each other and then entertained questions from the congregation. Following the panel discussion the church divided into small groups and discussed a number of hot political issues with each other.
Why Not Do This Everywhere?
Why, perhaps, is the prospect of surviving, or even holding, such an event in your church ahead of the 2016 election unthinkable? It may be that the members of your congregation are as politically polarized as Congress and you wouldn’t want to risk a firestorm. Or it may be that your church wouldn’t be able to put together a panel because there is only one sort of political point of view among your members. Or it may be that no one would attend because your church doesn’t care about politics at all.
None of these reasons seem to make a lot of sense to me. Think of the first and second: Jesus died to create a single new humanity made up of all sorts of people: If he could break down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, he can certainly do it for Democrats and Republicans. The church is held together by the cross, the Spirit, and the prayers of Jesus and for these reasons it's the only social organization that will survive the final judgment. Our ability to stay together despite our political differences proves that the cross worked, Jesus’ prayers get through, and our message is credible. Our inability to get along threatens to undermine everything.
Or think of the third reason: Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to show the world what he is like and to give the world a taste of what his governance will look like when all is said and done. Jesus, in other words, has a social policy, and he wants us to work diligently to express it, however imperfectly. This means that we may not withdraw from the world, including the world of politics.
Why We Fight
Why do we fight (or simply avoid each other) over politics? I can think of two reasons—a good one and a not-so-good one. The good reason is that we care. We rightly want to make things better, not just for ourselves but for our friends and neighbors. Politics is part of how we express this care. But politics is an imperfect science and a blunt instrument. It employs imperfect strategies through the work of imperfect people to make life only a little bit better (maybe), sometimes with unintended and unpleasant consequences. Everything about the endeavor is flawed and subject to critique. So we are bound to find ourselves disagreeing, sometimes angrily, over politics. Just try talking with a fellow Christian about tax policy or about immigration reform or about the law and same-sex marriage.
The not-so-good reason for our political fighting is that we often set our hopes too profoundly on political solutions. Euphoria over the election of our candidate is a symptom of this, as are ridicule and marginalization of those we disagree with. It is form of idolatry (‘forsaking the fountain of living water and carving out for ourselves cracked cisterns that cannot even hold water” according to Jeremiah), and idolatry, because it sets our hope too much on fragile things, makes us nervous and angry. If, for example, we have built our life styles and future plans around a largely de-regulated economy, we will tend to become angry when a friend says we should push hard for more regulation. If on the other hand we have built our life styles and future plans around certain governmental social benefits, we may find ourselves growing nervous and angry when someone urges policies that aim to remove or diminish entitlements.
What Can You Do?
Maybe you are not in a position to hold a politics panel at church. But you can always grab a cup of coffee with a Christian friend and talk about one hot topic. Where you disagree on political strategy, search for common ground on moral principle. Where you cannot even agree on moral principle, listen carefully and respectfully to try to understand why. When you are done, pray for each other. And take the Lord’s Supper together as soon as you can. Much more than we may realize depends on learning to love each other over our differences.