What better time to ponder the church’s proper role in the political process than on the heels of the two political conventions.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that most of us find it pretty uncomfortable to discuss politics in any setting, let alone a gathering of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Because the politics in this country is so divisive, we worry that this divisiveness will tear us apart; so we avoid the subject all together. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The key to conversations that don’t end up tearing us apart is twofold: we need to share our views in a spirit of love and humility, always willing to acknowledge that we may be wrong; and we also need to agree on some basic assumptions about the church’s proper role in the political process.
First, if we can’t agree that our ultimate allegiance is not to any political leader or party, but to Jesus and his movement, we will simply retreat to our partisan political spheres. However, if we agree that our ultimate allegiance is to him, then his life and teaching should shape our priorities. Although we may be a member of one of our political parties, our role is to help shape that party’s policies to be in sync with Jesus’ priorities. Let me be clear: our job is not to impose our Christian beliefs on others; our job is to advocate for the kind of public policies that are consistent with Jesus’ vision for the world. For too long, Christians have compartmentalized their politics and religion. Religion was relegated to the private sphere of religious practice and one on one relationships. Consequently, Jesus and his teachings were also relegated to the private sphere and deemed totally irrelevant to the political sphere.
Secondly, if we affirm that Jesus and his teachings are relevant to our public discourse, we need to know his priorities and advocate for policies that support these priorities. For example, Jesus ministry was constantly breaking down the ethnic, racial, and sexual barriers that divided people. Indeed, the church that emerged after his death and resurrection was notorious for its full inclusion of Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female. Jesus and the Bible as a whole stresses the importance of welcoming the stranger. In today’s politics, Christians should resist either party’s attempts to exclude anyone from full membership in our body politic. We should also resist policies that demonize and scapegoat anyone. The important thing is not so much what party we belong to, but what are fighting for. We need to bear witness to what we know whether or not it is the dominant in view in our party. Jesus and the prophets also stressed that the poor and needy should be our priority. Christians may disagree about how best to address the needs of the most vulnerable, but they can’t disagree on the urgency of addressing their situation. Jesus also commanded us to love our enemies rather than destroy them. Neither of our main political parties buy into this approach. Christians should always be prodding our leaders to always look for non-violent solutions to our problems
Thirdly, and in some ways most importantly, Christians need to insist on civil discourse in the political process. The vitriol in the current campaign is astonishing. We need to respect our fellow citizens with whom we may disagree. No demonizing. No scapegoating. No cheap shot emails that ridicule others. If we are to address the major issues of the day in this country, it is going to take a respectful, bipartisan, collaborative effort from all our citizens. We won’t get anywhere if we think the answer is to condemn one another. We should also cultivate a spirit of forgiveness in our political process. We shouldn’t expect political leaders not to make mistakes, but we should expect them to acknowledge them.
As Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, is fond of saying: “The Church is the Jesus movement.” Our calling is to be a faithful member of that movement regardless of party affiliation. Our calling is to build coalitions with people, regardless of party, around Gospel priorities. This doesn’t mean that people of faith won’t disagree on the issues of the day, but if we acknowledge our shared convictions, I bet we will find that we have a lot more in common than we imagine.