“Hysteria,” cynicism, scandal, and tweet storms — American politics right now is a hot mess. Political clashes are public, polarized, and prolonged. But if it feels like we’re living through an ideological civil war, this experience is not unique to our time or to this country. But many younger Christians have been spared this cultural experience until now.
So, what does it mean for the church? How do we walk, careful not to fan the flames of political animosity? If we get embroiled in heated political debates online or even in face-to-face conversations with others, what is the cost on our evangelistic priorities in culture? More generally, perhaps we should ask: Are Christians too deeply embedded in American culture already, as some have recently suggested? I posed these questions to Dr. Don Carson, co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition. From his home office, he shared with me his thoughts.
That’s a good, but complex question. You’re right, first of all, to point out that this has happened before. This is a particularly intense one. For example, during the first year and a half or so of the Second World War — before America was involved, after Pearl Harbor — there was huge division in this country between those who thought we should get into the war and those who thought we should not. If Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened, it’s hard to imagine how America would easily have gone into the war.
“Christians must constantly remember that we live here, but don’t belong here.”
There have been other times that have been equally polarized with no restraint whatsoever with the name-calling and so on. From a historical perspective, this is not unknown, but it is particularly intense now partly because of some of the personalities involved and partly because the diverse political opinions are so convinced that each is right. There is very little even-headed weighing of things. A polarization in Congress means there are only winners and losers, whereas when Reagan was in power, for example, although he was pretty much on the conservative side, he knew how to work with people from the opposite party.
That sometimes assured that he was considered a compromiser by people on the right, but in fact he got many things done and steered a whole country precisely because he knew how to win people, whereas as long as both sides are thinking almost exclusively in terms of winning and losing, then what you generate is self-righteousness, fear, hated, a conquest mentality, and not the kind of political compromise that actually gets things through both houses of Congress. You combine that with any sort of narcissistic attitude, and it’s really hard to find leaders who are simultaneously strong and humble. That’s part of the background in which we find ourselves.
Not Our Home
So, what would I say then to Christians? First, it really is very important to remember constantly that Christians don’t live here — or, we live here, but don’t belong here. “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” Or the old Negro spiritual that says, “I’m just crossing over Jordan.” Some people have charged both spirituals with a kind of escapism. I don’t think it’s escapism. I think that that view of the eternal realities that await us position us to relativize the absolutes of our day and position us to endure and grow strong.
If all you have to live for, if all that is valuable, takes place in the political world right now, then you understand why it becomes absolute. But if political issues are important because people are important (and you want to do what’s right and what’s good and what’s best for the country and for the world, for the people that you govern and so on), and if you also have this larger perspective that you want to get people ready to meet God and that this life is not all there is, then that relativizes the intensity with which you have any right to invest your energy into the political process.
“You cannot evangelize people you don’t love, whether they’re from another party, race, or religion.”
I think that one of the good things that could come out of this is that some Christians both on the left and on the right have identified their Christianity with a particular political party. On the right, often in terms of freedom and in terms of a certain vision of prosperity, in terms of the primacy of God-centered fear and so on. On the left, in terms of concern for the poor, in terms of concern for social justice — again on each side as each side understands those terms. If you identify your whole being with those ideals and then produce policies that you think will bring them about, then the political voice that is heard from both sides is, “Follow my policies and we’ll bring you to the promised land. Follow my policies and we’ll finally have peace and justice and accord and maturity and so on in this land.” When each side talks of learning to cooperate with me, what they mean is, “Capsize your own views and just follow me.”
Not My Party
It’s much more mature in a two-party democratic system to recognize that for the devout Christian whose ethical and moral views are taken from Holy Scripture, no matter which party you align with, there are going to be some things you like and some things you don’t like. Even in the best of times, you sort of hold your nose a bit about this particular element of the party versus that particular element of the party. If you don’t hold your nose, then your cue is probably being taken from the party rather than from Scripture. Scripture stands over against all parties.
Now, because of the shape of the argument today, it’s probably easier to see that for Christians to participate in the political system means that there is a little bit of holding your nose while you try to pursue the stance of the party that you think is going to do most good and least harm, and try to nudge the party toward a position that is more honorable and more God-fearing and so forth.
The next thing that needs to be said relates to when a culture itself becomes more distanced from any sort of Judeo-Christian heritage in the past. When I was a boy, everybody knew the Ten Commandments. When I was a boy, Bible teaching at school was not uncommon. I was in Canada, which is now more secular than most schools in the United States. Today, the notion that your subdivision had a lot of Christian values seems quaint, archaic, out of touch.
“The most good we can ever do to people is to lead them to Christ Jesus.”
As a result, people have been advocating something that is increasingly called the Benedict Option. It’s named after Benedict, who started an order, a monastery, a kind of withdrawal from societies to live differently. In a sense every local church trying to square with Scripture is pursuing the Benedict Option, although they wouldn’t name it that particularly, but that is to constitute a culture that is a bit different.
So, we shouldn’t be thinking exactly the same thing as the world around us about iPhones or Oscars or economics or almost anything: social, sexual mores, what you do with your money, what advancement looks like, what success looks like, what human flourishing looks like, and what kind of jokes you listen to. There is a sense in which instead of having a Judeo-Christian heritage all around us in which we’re playing a slightly more righteous part and preaching the gospel, we’re increasingly dealing with, especially in the most secular parts of the country, an essentially alien society. Then, it’s important for not just the individual Christian, but for the Christian church, the Christian community to live differently. That needs to be thought through and worked out much more systematically than it has been.
First Things First
Then, beyond all of that, the place of evangelism in all of this cannot be lost. You cannot evangelize people you don’t love, whether they’re from the opposite party or from the opposite sex or from a different race or from a different religion, including Islam. We have to relearn the ability to disagree with people and still do it in such a way that we’re not simply being rude and obstreperous and hate-mongering. That which we learn in evangelism needs to be suffused through all of our human relationships, including our political relationships, so that we are honorable people — we are not merely name-calling people.
When we disagree with others, we need to be aware that the Jesus who can denounce some people as in Matthew 23 because of the damage that they are doing, yet he ends up at the end of the chapter weeping over the city. We must be known as people who weep over our Jerusalem. That means a certain humility of mind, a certain compassion, a certain eternal view.
I’m absolutely convinced that the most good we can ever do to anyone, any family, is to lead them to Christ Jesus. Even if we win all the political debates and lose that, all we’re doing is guaranteeing a self-righteous community that is on the brink of hell in any case — so, first things first — and still maintain clarity and commitment to the gospel and to the Christ of the gospel.
Very good. We live here; we don’t belong here. Amen. Briefly, I’d like to underline something you said — or seemed to imply. We already have a form of the Benedict Option called the local church — a place where Christians pull away from the world for a time to gather as a society of fellow believers, there to be recalibrated by God’s word, and to be spiritually recharged, in order for us to re-enter this world on mission. Is that right?
“Scripture stands over against all political parties.”
That’s exactly right. There’s a sense in which the Benedict Option is being treated as something new. It’s not. Even at the social level, quite apart from distinctively evangelical commitments, there’s a sense in which the Benedict Option is precisely what the Amish did, but they did it in certain ways that look to most of us like escapism or so withdrawing from the world that you’re not doing the world any good.
Whereas, we need our churches that are not following the dictates of the world and its agenda and culture and entertainment modes of how you use smartphones and whatever, but at the same time is engaged with the world. We need to be different from the world, but engaged with the world. That’s not comfortable, but it seems to be essentially Christian. It’s what Christians had to do in the first century, the second century, the third century. It’s what Christians have done whenever the world has stood over against it. But the church has maintained a commitment to the gospel and to evangelism.
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