What We Might Mean When We Talk About Politics
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.
Every conviction a Christian has about politics rests atop answers to a host of questions that we rarely acknowledge asking: “The Bible gives guidelines for ‘rulers and those in authority,’ but should we understand ‘rulers and those in authority’ to be our elected officials, the citizens that elect them, or the influencers who shape public opinion?” “Should Christians use the state to lead our neighbors to walk in line with scripture’s best practices for human life, or is it more strategic for us to focus on making the church a clearly visible counter-point to the direction of our culture?” “What people around me are feeling fear or loss or suffering most acutely, and what approach to their needs makes the most sense to me?”
A complete list of the questions that members of Jesus’ church have to implicitly answer before we can form a political opinion could go on and on. Most of us probably don’t need to be able to articulate every consideration that informs our approach to politics, but it is vital that we always remember that these considerations exist.
A recent interview given by North Carolina congresswoman Virginia Foxx can serve as a useful case study in how important these kinds of considerations really are.
Rep. Foxx recently appeared on a conservative talk radio show to promote an upcoming book featuring spiritual testimonies from over a dozen U.S. lawmakers. She opens the interview by speaking compellingly and eloquently about the testimonies and sincere faith of the men and women who contributed to the book. She even takes care to note that the book features stories from Republicans and Democrats alike—a demonstration of humility and generosity that's frequently lacking in national politics.
When a member of Congress makes a respectful nod toward a member of the other party, it can be tempting to dismiss it as an empty rhetorical gesture (and I’m sure it often is). However, based on the rest of her interview, Rep. Foxx’s graciousness seems to be genuinely rooted in her experience of and life with Christ. As an elected official who is accountable to an energetic base, she has more reason than most to discredit members of the opposition party, and I’m grateful that she took the time to remind listeners that the church transcends human institutions. It’s important for Christians who think or talk about politics to remember that we have brothers and sisters scattered within every nation, tribe and culture—including among the tribes of our political opposition.
When the interview moves from the book to a broader conversation about the state of congressional politics, Rep. Foxx is intentional about noting our limitations as human beings, our seeing things "through a glass darkly," in a way that is really refreshing to hear from someone on the national stage. Because the structure of our media often rewards shallow bravado, such expressions of humility aren’t just counter-cultural—they are potentially sacrificial.
THREE VERSIONS OF US
In the same stretch of the conversation, though, Rep. Foxx also made a statement that followers of Christ would do well to examine and consider in a bit more depth:
“Those of us who are conservative Republicans are doing the best that we know to do based on biblical principles and yet sometimes that way seems very difficult ... We have to put our faith in God, that if we continue to do the right thing, the right things will happen."
The first thing you may notice about this comment is that, stripped of context, who Rep. Foxx means when she says "us" and "we" is ambiguous. However, listening to the interview in its entirety doesn’t clarify the question. That ambiguity is built into the statement, yet the statement’s whole meaning hinges on that being clarified.
If she intended "us" to mean, "Christian members of Congress," then that statement would mean something like, "I believe that Christian lawmakers who are conservative Republicans are doing the best we can according to biblical principles." That's a fine and laudable statement to make. I hope that Christian lawmakers of every political persuasion, including conservative Republicans, are applying biblical principles to the way they approach their work.
“Us” in this sentence could also mean, “people,” in which case she’s saying something along the lines of, “I believe that U.S. citizens who are conservative Republicans are doing the best they can according to biblical principles.” This reading of her statement would seem to indicate that she conflates two separate groups of people: People who share her faith, and people who share her conservative Republican politics. The fact that she opened the interview by praising the faith of people who don’t share her politics makes this an unlikely reading, though.
Based on context, I think it’s most likely that "us" should be understood to mean, "elected officials." In that case, the statement means something like, "I believe that conservative Republican politicians are doing the best they can according to biblical principles." However, agreeing about policy with a critical mass of Christians does not mean that someone is adhering to biblical principles. A Christian may advocate for a policy solution because it answers a biblical problem, but find that her partisan allies are pursuing the same policy solution for entirely different reasons, responding to problems that have little to do with the biblical worldview.
And to make matters even more complex, agreeing on biblical principles doesn’t have to mean agreeing on a strategy for implementing them: Just as a Christian might find herself agreeing with other members of her party about what to do but disagreeing about the problem these solutions could solve, she can also find herself agreeing with another member of her church about what problems the Bible identifies in the world around them but disagreeing about what solutions they think are best. Christians of good faith who have seen and experienced the same problems in different ways often find themselves in differing parties.
DO THE RIGHT THING
In the same quote I referenced above, Rep. Foxx says that we “have to put our faith in God that if we continue to do the right things, the right things will happen.” This assertion also deserves some examination and qualification.
Scripture offers plenty of exhortations about how to live honorably and justly, but it also offers many examples of people who do everything right and yet still see everything around them go wrong. Chief among these people is, of course, Jesus—the same Jesus who we are exhorted to look at, honor and follow. The author and perfecter of our faith did everything right and yet was mocked, exiled and executed. Expecting that our obedience will be rewarded with a happy life or healed world before he returns to make all things new seems like a difficult conclusion to draw from the full scope of scripture.
There is a chance that, when she talks about doing the right thing, she’s not talking about getting what she considers to be the right laws passed, but rather whether she and her fellow lawmakers are discharging their administrative duties in accordance with the Bible’s commands for how kings, judges and rulers can behave honorably. If that's the case, her comments skip entirely over the question of whether Christians are meant to primarily read Old Testament passages about what it means to be a good king as direct prescriptions for ourselves, or whether we should first read these passages as descriptions of what we can expect of Jesus.
Jesus’ Church has been wrestling with the question of how to understand and apply those Old Testament commands since the time of his first apostles. I have brothers and sisters of good and sincere faith who have learned, inherited or practiced different approaches from me, but I tend to believe that, because our King said that all of the law and the prophets were pointing to him, the first question we should ask ourselves when reading the law and the prophets is not, "How can I apply what I see here in my life?" Instead, I think we should ask ourselves, "How does this help me better understand Jesus? What does this lead me to expect of him? And how might remembering those truths about him change the way I behave today?"
That doesn't mean that we don't have to behave honestly and honorably in our own lives, but it does change what we expect to happen when we behave honorably. Jesus conducted himself as a true judge and king is supposed to and got the joy that was set before him—his church, gathered to him like chicks to a mother hen. Following in his example will lead us toward the same reward he experienced: Intimacy with him and with his people. The world around us may still experience some degree of peace and flourishing as a result of our efforts to be honorable, but that's at best a secondary goal, at most a brief proximate good that will be overshadowed by the ultimate good of his return.
AN EXHAUSTING AND ESSENTIAL EXERCISE
We aren’t all called to the daunting work of serving on Capitol Hill like Rep. Foxx is, but if you are a Christian in the United States, God has placed you in a time and place where every person has some degree of responsibility for the life of the community and government around them. Whatever decision you make about what to do with that responsibility should be shaped by your belief in the gospel and aimed at helping some people around you see and feel God's coming Kingdom in some way.
But whenever someone describes the way their faith in Christ shapes their politics, it’s important for us to remember that there are mediating layers between their faith and their politics like the ones described above. It’s unrealistic to expect every Christian to identify and articulate their complete range of experiences and assumptions that informed their opinions every time they talk about civic issues—that would be exhausting for everyone and make it extraordinarily difficult to ever actually say anything. But remembering that every Christian in our country has to make these kinds of calculations, even if we aren’t always aware that we are making them, can make it harder for parties and campaigns to exploit our faith for votes while dismissing us as naive or insubstantial.
Disagreeing about the best way of making God’s coming Kingdom felt that doesn’t prevent us from being part of the community of grace—an institution that existed long before American politics and will long outlast it.
Portions of this article are adapted from a recent email exchange I had about Rep. Foxx’s interview.
Want to learn more about how to carry your faith into the world around you? The Christian Civics team is hosting upcoming classes in New York and Washington, DC, as well as a new series of conference calls for people anywhere to join us in prayer!