The political Christian

American Christians tend to be a bit schizophrenic about politics. They swing from utopian optimism (“Christianizing the social order,” “restoring America as a Christian nation”) to extreme pessimism when the inevitable disillusion sets in about the limits of what politics can accomplish. This recent post at the Christian Century blog by David Heim offers a more sober perspective:

Skepticism about politics is always healthy. But it strikes me that [David] Kuo’s and [Gregory] Boyd’s comments reflect a broad, unhelpful tendency in American Christianity to oscillate between two poles: either a fervent engagement in politics for the sake of the gospel and the world, or an equally fervent detachment for the sake of the purity of the gospel and the health of the church. Isn’t there something between the two poles?

Heim goes on to argue that Christians should see politics as a vocation that some have (and that all of us have some of the time) to participate in making improvements in the social order. He cautions against the churches corporately making pronouncements on specific political issues, but encourages individual Christians to be engaged in the public sphere:

Meanwhile, however, individual Christians have their particular vocations. In a democracy, all people have the vocation of citizen and so are in some degree called to the work of politics. Beyond that, a certain number of individual Christians are called to a more specific vocation: to study, analyze or participate in the day-to-day workings of politics. They make arguments and pay attention to data. They look for affinities between the gospel and political philosophies and programs. They listen to what constituents say and arguments other people make. Their work is fallible, limited, pervaded by sin, always subject to revision—but so are lots of vocations.

This decidedly non-utopian approach to politics would recognize that it’s about caring for the neighbor and making the social orde a place where all people can have a chance at leading decent lives. A backlash against “Constantinianism” has soured some Christians on any involvement in politics, but there’s no reason that a chastened political engagement that recognizes the fact of pluralism and the limits of what politics can accomplish isn’t a legitimate vocation for Christians.

However, I think there’s still a role for the church acting corporately to equip its members for their various vocations in the world. While it doesn’t necessarily have the expertise to make judgments about particular issues, the church ought to form its members in a way that helps them approach politics with a gospel-shaped vision. For instance, I think it’s entirely appropriate for Chrisitans to evaluate public policy with an eye to how it affects the most vulnerable members of society. This kind of formation might come as a result of experience serving such vulnerable people by participating in the church’s corporal works of mercy.

There’s also a long tradition of Chrisitan moral reflection that forbids certain means in the pursuit of even worthwhile ends. Just war theory is an example that applies to foreign affairs. In most cases these constraints probably won’t dictate a single policy, but they might rule out some options. Well-formed Christians are not going to support a military policy that targets innocent civilians, or acquiesces in torture.

So, I agree with Heim that Christians can chart a middle course between Constantinianism and sectarianism. This involves seeking the good of the neighbor in a way that is shaped by an awareness of our own fallibility and the limits of politics, but is also formed by the gospel of God’s gracious love.

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