By Rick Crawford
While I maintain that it’s always interesting to study and teach about politics and government, I must confess that it’s especially so this year! We’re seeing things never before seen in American politics, and that involves far more than just the first woman presidential nominee of a major party. Many of the people who talk to me about politics are more anxious than usual, largely stemming from the presidential election. They are concerned about the future, and they are struggling to figure out how – sometimes even whether – Christians should engage our contemporary political climate. The Bible teaches us that we should “[c]onsider it all joy” when we encounter trials, knowing that they work to strengthen our faith (James 1: 2-4), and it is my hope that the struggle and uncertainty many Christians are now facing will strengthen our faith by leading us back to the fundamentals, which – unfortunately – we have neglected when it comes to politics.
The single most important point here is that we must understand political participation – just as other aspects of life – as a matter of discipleship. To my mind, viewed in this light the question of whether Christians should even participate in politics is relatively simple to resolve. After all, Jesus himself instructed us to “[r]ender to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”
(Matthew 22: 21; Mark 12: 17; Luke 20: 25). While He said this within the context of an attempt to trap Him over payment of taxes, I believe it has a broader application: it teaches us that we should respect the duties we have as earthly citizens. For us, this involves – at a minimum – informed participation through voting, and it is easily expandable to political participation more broadly. Indeed, if we are to be salt and light to the world (Matthew 5), part of this must be the example we set for our contemporary culture through how we participate in politics.
Here is where it gets more challenging, however. Our example must reflect true discipleship. Sadly, this is where many Christians run aground. Much of the time efforts at Christian political participation get reduced to assertions that Christians must vote for a particular candidate or that they should support candidates of a certain political party. This is counter-productive, in that – ultimately – it weakens our influence instead of expanding it. That happens because such an approach doesn’t reflect true discipleship at all; instead, it reflects an impostor I refer to as “politician’s discipleship.” Allow me a moment to explain.
I John 2: 6 admonishes us that “[t]he one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” That sounds simple, but it is far from easy! It means that we must strive to be like Christ not in some things but in all things. None of us can say that we have reached that point, but remember that even Paul was exasperated at himself over his struggles on this front (Romans 7)!
This is directly related to the whole idea of Christian political participation. When Christians talk about politics, the discussion is virtually always limited to certain positions on hot button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. This is by no means to suggest that these are not important issues; they most certainly are. The problem is that limiting our participation to this extent reflects an incomplete discipleship and – in reality – means that we have lost sight of the goal of seeking to be like Christ in all things.
Let me offer an example here that will hopefully help to clarify the point. During my time in the state legislature, a bill came forward with the strong support of the governor at the time (likely introduced at his request) that proposed to eliminate all state income taxes on retirement income for seniors. Sounds great, right? Who could possibly oppose that? Unfortunately, as is often the case in a legislative setting, the devil really was in the details. Because “retirement income” meant only certain things, not all income would have been exempted just because a person had reached a certain age. Thus, for example, the bill would allow the very wealthy 75 year old widow to have literally unlimited income from interest on her CDs and dividends on her stock holdings yet not pay a dime in state income taxes on any of it, while the struggling 75 year old widow who worked part-time as a Wal-Mart greeter because she couldn’t buy her food without that money would have been required to pay income tax on that meager income. I voted against the bill. I believed at the time – and continue to believe – that there is nothing whatsoever in supporting such a policy outcome that is in any way consistent with the example of Christ. Sadly, many of those who bashed me the hardest over that vote claimed to be Christians! They said I voted to punish people for being successful. You see, they had allowed their entire political perspective to be shaped not by the example of Christ but by the words of politicians.
How could this happen to sincere, well-intentioned believers? It isn’t as difficult as you might imagine. Think about it for a minute: the goal of politicians is to win an election, not to inspire us and lead us to a deeper discipleship. That requires getting us to vote for them, which means they focus only on certain things designed for that purpose. Instead of prodding us to a deeper commitment, which might very well involve telling us things we don’t want to hear, they stick to the tried and true that will get us to vote for them. Thus, our political participation has become so narrow because – instead of setting our own agenda based on the full example of Christ – we simply respond to the agenda set by the politicians, and their agenda is based on something other than building and reflecting a true discipleship.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. point is not to be critical of politicians. Actually, my point is to be critical of us as Christians! We are instructed to examine everything and keep only that which is good (I Thessalonians 5: 21) and to grow into maturity in Christ so that we are not tossed about by wind, waves, and deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4). This means we should be setting the agenda, rooted in a sincere desire to be like Christ in all things, not willfully allowing ourselves to be manipulated by politicians for selfish political purposes. Unfortunately, it would be an understatement to admit that we have been less than completely successful.
It should come as no surprise that our failure on this front is not without consequences. One of them is that we have no ability at all to impose any sort of accountability on those who have been placed in positions of authority. How could we, seeing as how we let them establish the criteria by which they are evaluated? Many of my students would make much better grades if they were allowed to make up their own exams, so should I let them? Of course not, you say. So why should we let the politicians do it? Again, the real problem isn’t that they do this; the real problem is that our discipleship – at least as applied to politics – is so weak that we let them.
Another consequence is that our ability to exert a constructive influence on our contemporary culture has been severely reduced. It saddens me to admit this, but the truth is I have encountered people outside the church who seem to have a better idea of what Jesus is really all about than some of the people in the church! This matters because, when they observe the very limited and narrow manner in which many Christians engage in politics (not to mention when they see us taking positions that appear to contradict a Christian perspective, such as my tax example, or when they notice that we don’t even bother to address issues that Christians should), it leads them to conclude that what we say really isn’t rooted in any sort of a sincere faith at all. Rather, they conclude that what we say is really nothing more than a convenient public explanation offered in an attempt to justify our own personal political preferences. This erodes our credibility and – in their minds – gives them all they need to safely reject everything we have to say.
Unfortunately, the main consequence, while very much related, is far more profound. If I could condense one of the major themes that run throughout Paul’s writings, it would be this (my words, not his): “Whatever you do, don’t conduct yourself in such a way that you give people an excuse to reject the Gospel.” Indeed, he goes even further: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (I Corinthians 9: 22). We tend to think of the way we do politics and the way we do evangelism as being completely separate and distinct issues. They most assuredly are not. In point of fact, the two are completely intertwined. Lost people evaluate the Gospel in no small part based on their evaluation of those who present it, and we cannot reasonably expect them to do otherwise. Thus, that which erodes our credibility with regard to politics also erodes our credibility with regard to winning people to faith. Fortunately, the converse is also true: that which enhances our credibility with regard to politics will also enhance our credibility with regard to winning people to faith. Because this duty is so central to all that we are (Matthew 28: 19-20), we must embrace fully that which will help us advance it.
In conclusion, allow me to briefly summarize my ramblings. As Christians, we just don’t do politics very well. This reflects an incomplete discipleship that undermines both our ability to influence our culture and our ability to win the lost to faith. What we’re doing isn’t working, and we need both the courage to recognize this and the conviction to change it. We must fall down before God, asking him to open our hearts and minds and to show us how we can be more of what He needs us to be. The consequences – for the lost, for our discipleship, and for our country – are simply too great for us to do otherwise.
Rick Crawford is a political science professor at Shorter University. Before joining the faculty at Shorter he practiced law in his own firm for almost twenty years. During this time he served three terms as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and also served as both a municipal court judge and chief magistrate judge. He presently serves as a deacon, Sunday School teacher, and church moderator at Victory Baptist Church in Rockmart.