Is There a Christian Politics?
Is there such a thing as “Christian politics?”
Consider this a follow-up or maybe a “Part 2” to my blog of last week America Without God? My main idea there was that with the loss of shared religious ethos and diminishment of religious institutions, a vacuum has been created. A vacuum that is being filled by a partisan politics which are marked by a near religious intensity or fervor.
But not all the blame for this development can be laid at the feet of politics, the political parties, or the political extremes of either right or left. The church has a lot to answer for as well.
In particular a development among self-identified Christians in politics over the last several decades belies the use of the word “Christian.” What I have mind is the way that “Christian” political involvement has so often been self-interested and self-protective. In a world riven by special interests and identity politics, too often Christians are now just another one, watching out for themselves. “Christian” politics often seems to mean trying to protect special privileges and perceived group interests. As in Trump’s assurance to his followers, “You’ll be able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” Translation: “You will get your privileged place back.”
Of late I have been working my way through a new book, The Politics of the Cross, by Daniel K. Williams to review it for a publication. It’s an excellent book and I will say more about it in the future. But for now, just one central point.
What does Williams mean by “the politics of the cross”? Nothing super-abstract or theologically complicated. He means putting the interests of others ahead of our own.
He draws on the crucial Christological passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul speaks of the way of Christ and the way of the cross. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2: 3 – 4) Paul goes on to speak of Christ “he, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself . . .” (vs. 6 -7).
That doesn’t means being a doormat for other people’s selfish agendas. Quite the contrary. You may oppose power grabs in order to protect the most vulnerable.
Positively, it means that you are willing to make sacrifices for the good of others. You might, for example, support tax law changes even if they mean you’ll pay more because they are more nearly fair for everyone, especially the poorest among us. Or you support and participate in public institutions of education, parks, pools and recreation which benefit many rather than those that are private and exclusive ones that benefit few.
“What if instead of being known as a political interest group, evangelical Christians in the United States were known as the people who cared enough about the nation and the well-being of their neighbors to sacrifice their own interests at the voting booth and cast ballots primarily with the good of others in mind?
“But, in fact, white evangelical Christians’ political behavior has generally not been characterized by this attitude.” Most often their political action has been galvanized around an alleged “moral outrage” like same-sex marriage which is portrayed as a “threat to our way of life.” Williams, who teaches at West Georgia University, is talking about his own team here as he identifies as an evangelical Christian.
But to get back to “America After God,” perhaps one of the reasons that Christian faith and institutions aren’t doing so well is that they haven’t really been very Christian? They have been as self-regarding as everyone else and thus fail to provide an alternative and contrast to the dominant culture.
Now you might say, “Isn’t what you’re talking about ‘social justice’?” Yes, but there’s something to be said for Williams’s simpler framing. It is not an abstraction, which “social justice” is. Abstractions tend to get filled with all sorts or agendas and to turn into slogans. Also William’s “politics of the cross” is closely tied to Jesus, he who “emptied himself.” That clear connection to Christ and his way is important.
As I say, more to come from his book, but for now this basic point seems to me one of which reminding is needed. If there is such a thing as a “Christian politics” it is marked by a priority on the well-being of our neighbors, and not a pursuit of self-interest gussied up with the word “Christian.”
Samuel Johnson once said, “Never be afraid to remind people of the obvious; it is what they have most forgot.” Perhaps this key point about a Christian politics as putting other’s interest ahead of your own may be “obvious,” but it is pretty clear that it has been also been forgotten.