Linda Mercadante is the fourth and final scholar to respond to our Fall Forum question, “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” Read other responses by Vance Morgan, Myriam Renaud, and Steve Ostovich.
Political advocacy seems like a good idea. It seems like something Christians should be doing. But I don’t think “right action” is the core of the Gospel. Instead, I believe that “right orientation” is where we must start.
For Christians, ethical action, good behavior, morality, and even advocacy for the voiceless and marginalized spring out of a “right orientation.” There may be other religions who begin with right action, or focus on societal order or harmony, but Christianity, in my opinion, gets side-tracked when we begin there. Our primary goal and starting place is facing the God who has chosen to face us. Until then, our hearts are restless (as St. Augustine affirmed) and it follows, then, that so is our behavior.
Right orientation even precedes right belief. Of course, one must believe some things in order to orient ourselves and focus our energy. For Christians, there are a few basic beliefs that help move us into the right orientation. It helps to believe that there is a God, that God reaches out to us, and that God is trustworthy and loving. Gratitude for this reality, for this presence in our lives, precedes everything. Besides gratitude, there is also trust. We must trust in the character of God, in God’s good intentions for us, in God’s guiding, and in God’s special work to show us the divine character in a human and observable way, that is, in Jesus Christ.
Gratitude and trust are not exactly “actions,” but they are the “right motivation” for action. Gratitude and trust create the motivation to thank and serve Christ by serving others. All of this informs belief and precedes action.
Yet there is—or should be—an integral connection between belief and behavior. It is crucial to recognize that God makes legitimate demands on us. God calls us to live out of our orientation and to live out our beliefs. Too often, however, there is a disconnect or intermittent connection between our belief and our behavior. Many of us believe and profess many things which our actions do not bear out. Being inconsistent—or having a disharmonious relationship between what we believe and how we act—is simply being fallible and human. But that does not mean we should be content with this disconnect.
In fact, the observable disconnect is one reason many people leave churches, or never join to begin with. The many “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) persons I have spoken with bring up this poor connection between belief and behavior. They approve of the message of Jesus, but they are not thrilled with many of his people’s actions. While this is not the only reason they find religion irrelevant to their lives, it is definitely one of them. To make matters more complicated, we must also realize there is a new morality emerging today. In this new morality, each individual has both the right and the duty to find fulfillment in this life. What many Christians don’t realize is the way this new stance affects how Christians appear to others. For in this contemporary “culture of self-fulfillment,” SBNRs often see the ethical positions taken by many Christians – such as denying a woman’s right to choose, or denying covenantal love between same sex persons – as actually immoral.
It is also important to realize that most SBNRs are motivated by issues, not institutions. Given this, Christians do have a compelling obligation to connect their orientation and beliefs with credible action. Simply holding what we may think of as the “right” ethical position—whether you are coming from a conservative or a progressive stance—is not enough. Christians have the obligation to act rightly, not just believe rightly. Since ideally change in a democratic society takes place through legal means, political advocacy is appropriate for Christians.
But adhering to any one hard-and-fast stance, any one political ideology, can cause us to lose our “right orientation” to God. When Christians over-focus on peripheral issues and make them central—that is, focusing on “adiaphora,” things not essential to salvation—we do not bear witness to the Spirit. For Christians must stay, first, attuned to the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit in our midst may just as much disturb the status quo as confirm it.
When we look back in history, we can see that many positions which Christians were convinced came from biblical sources and Christian tradition—such as slavery, the subordination of women, the idea that humans have a right to indiscriminately use creation—have all been found inadequate or erroneous interpretations of the gospel message. Of course, we continue to see through a “glass darkly.” Even so, Christians have a duty to get involved in society, in politics, to “perform” their beliefs. But when advocacy of essentially limited or narrow ethical positions—stances which are not clear-cut biblical mandates—takes over, it hampers the openness to the Holy Spirit that “right orientation” creates. Indeed, over-focusing and acting on just a few positions that one’s group, pastor, or political party deems “ethical” is just as much a dead-end as not turning one’s belief into action, that is, hypocrisy.
I believe that the Bible is very clear on a few things that should inspire action. God reaches out to each of us. God cares about the stranger, the alien, the widow, and the orphan. God hears the silent cries of the voiceless. God takes the side of the powerless. God does not want religious observance without love. God wants our allegiance not because it promotes fear and bondage, but because it promotes true human freedom.
Christians must get things properly ordered. We must keep, as our primary task, our orientation to God. We must also realize that God asks us to live out this orientation in our actions. Finally, we must be open to the Spirit’s influence, which over-rides all ideologies and constrained political positions. If we can keep this direction clear, we will not appear “immoral” to the large and growing population which believes church is irrelevant, uninteresting, and uninviting.