When I saw the Facebook post, it was all I could do to stop myself from commenting. In the post, a friend was reacting to the latest political drama—about which I happened to have some strong opinions of my own. But after a few seconds of my fingers hovering over the keyboard, I resisted the urge to type.
As a pastor, I need to be cautious when airing my political opinions. I certainly can’t do it from the pulpit. Stirring the pot on Facebook is almost equally unwise.
But this episode got me thinking: how should a Christian relate to politics?
In James Davidson Hunter’s excellent book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, he argues convincingly that both conservative and liberal Christians in our country have had the wrong relationship with politics. On the right, Christians in the “Moral Majority” of the 80s and 90s made a sincere but ultimately misguided attempt to wield political power to legislate Judeo-Christian ethics. The causes were often good. They may have acted in the name of truth and righteousness. But as Hunter points out, their efforts were doomed to fail because of the nature of political power itself. The power of the state is a blunt tool. You can use it to change laws, but not hearts.
What about Christians on the political left? They have used the same flawed strategy. Only instead of linking their faith to conservative causes like abortion and marriage, they have linked their faith with liberal causes like racial equality and environmental protection. Again, these are worthy causes, and left-liberal Christians also believed they were acting on the side of truth. However, as Hunter points out, political power alone can’t deliver what it promises.
So where does that leave us? Should Christians—or people of any religious conviction, for that matter—leave faith out of politics?
No. What Hunter pleads for, and what I want to echo here, is for Christians to integrate their faith and their lives in a far deeper way than politics alone.
It is easy to check the box for a pro-life candidate. It is harder, and much more significant, to adopt a child or become a foster parent. It is easy to post an “Occupy Democrats” meme on Facebook about Jesus’ concern for the poor. It is harder, and much more significant, to volunteer at Martha’s Kitchen or give your own money to the poor.
Christians should live in the world with what Hunter calls Faithful Presence. Faithful presence means putting our faith in action by loving our neighbors, adding value to our schools and workplaces, and coming up with creative solutions to common problems (Jeremiah 29:4-7). It means being quick to listen and slow to speak (especially on Facebook!). It means not just voting our values, but spending, serving, and working according to our values. All of this has a political dimension. But when it comes to direct political involvement, it means rising above partisan loyalties and speaking truth with gentleness and love. The Christian can do all these things with optimism no matter who is in office because, ultimately, our confidence is not in human rulers but in God himself (Psalm 146).
Rev. Tyler Smith is the pastor of Georgia Plain Baptist Church in Georgia, Vt.