This post kicks off a new annual series called the Fall Forum. For this series, we will ask four scholars to respond to a question examining one facet of contemporary religious life, and we will publish their responses every Thursday for four weeks.
With the 2016 United States presidential election season heating up, we are interested in exploring different responses to and views on the role of Christians and the Christian church in the political realm and the world of political advocacy. This year we asked four scholars the question, “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” Vance Morgan starts us off with his essay below.
I recently reconnected on Facebook with a guy who was my best friend during a year of Bible school in my late teens—we had not been in touch for four decades. During an online conversation about some political/social issue, I mentioned that I am a liberal because I am a Christian. “That’s interesting,” he replied, “I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian.” Neither of us, wisely I think, pursued the matter further.
Answering the question “At what point does political advocacy on the part of Christians distort or compromise the Christian message?” requires first thinking about “the Christian message” itself. As the exchange above shows, well-meaning people of Christian faith can disagree sharply about the implications of their faith as it is lived on a daily basis in the real world. For instance, Susan might be thoroughly confused about how a professing Christian like Jim can whole-heartedly and full-throatedly worship at the altar of American capitalism, despite the devastation it leaves in its wake for millions of our fellow citizens. Meanwhile Jim is just as confused about how a professing Christian like Susan can be pro-choice, and completely supportive of same-sex unions. As progressive Christians and conservative Christians go to war in the public square over whose beliefs and principles are more faithful to the true “Christian message,” we are an offense and stumbling block to those who do not claim to be Christians. And Jesus weeps.
The parables and stories of Jesus consistently stress a central feature of faith that contemporary Christians tend to forget or ignore—the heart of Christianity is subtle, secret, and hidden. Followers of Jesus are likened to yeast and salt, the publican’s private petition for mercy is raised above the Pharisee’s public pronouncements of righteousness, we are told to pray alone behind closed doors to our Father who is in secret, and Jesus regularly tells his disciples and followers not to spread the word of his miracles or reveal his identity. In other words, Christian faith is a way of life, not a set of principles or doctrines, nor a social or political agenda. If that’s the case—that Christianity is a way of life energized by love—then it is to be expected that individual Christians will be as unique and various as human beings themselves are.
One way of describing Christianity as a way of life begins with the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” joined with Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But justice, mercy, humility and love incorporated in a human life are likely to look quite different depending on who the person is. We are not provided with ways to judge which manner of lived Christian faith is more faithful than another to the “Christian message,” because faith is always interior. I am the product of a conservative, fundamentalist, and evangelical Baptist upbringing, so I often wonder how I came to be as politically and socially liberal on most issues as I am. Many of the people I grew up with, like my friend from Bible school and many of my relatives, are products of conservative Christianity and lean right on political and social issues. My faith journey has been informed by many factors over several decades, including many that I did not choose. I have no reason to believe that my ever-evolving understanding of what the Lord requires of me is more faithful to the “Christian message” than the (often very different) understandings of my brothers and sisters in faith—whose histories and journeys are very different from mine.
The ever-present danger of Christian political advocacy is that its public nature makes it possible to mistake a set of political positions or social agendas as necessary and universal hallmarks of being a Christian. Simply put, it is very easy for the advocate to confuse her or his own purposes and agendas for the message of Christ. The “true message” of Christianity then quickly becomes something to be argued about in the public arena by persons equally convinced that their own agenda best matches up to the demands of Christian faith. This undermines the description of early Christians in the Book of Acts, who were remarkable because of “how much they loved each other.” The best firewall against this is to always keep in mind that the “message of Christianity” is the lives lived by those persons who profess the Christian faith in their daily private and public lives. Christianity is a way of life that is not reducible (without distortion) to a political or social agenda. We are the Christian message.
By all means Christians should be politically active—this is both a right and privilege of citizenship. But do not give the impression or be under the delusion that the right sort of political positions or social policies are what Christianity amounts to. I recommend that Christians distinguish carefully between Christian political advocacy and political advocacy by persons of Christian faith. The former is to be avoided at all costs, as no person should understand herself or himself to be the spokesperson for all Christians or for God. I highly recommend the latter; if Christian faith is serious, it will have a daily and direct impact on how we engage with others and society. We should not advocate in the name of Christianity, but we should advocate as the people that we have become because of our Christian faith.