Amy E. Black: Seeking a More Perfect Union—Part 1

Amy E. Black is professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois and author of 'Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason' (Moody)

Amy E. Black is professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois, author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason (Moody) and editor of Five Views on the Church and Politics (Zondervan).

Black earned her Ph.D. in political science at MIT and researches extensively on the intersection of religion and politics. She is a past president of Christians in Political Science and served as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow in the office of Representative Melissa A. Hart.

Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Black to gain an expert’s take on the dynamics that are shaping our politics today—and how Christian leaders can reclaim a genuine witness in a complicated day.

You seem to have thoroughly ignored the adage that neither religion nor politics belong in polite conversation. What’s the personal background to your work?

My interest in politics goes back to childhood. I grew up fascinated by current events. My parents talked often about politics in our home, though they weren’t particularly involved in politics themselves. I had a more practical bent though, and started working on local campaigns even before I could drive.

In college, I fell in love with my government major. I liked it so much that I went and got a Ph.D. in political science. I saw how important politics is for our everyday lives. First I was reading about it, then writing about it. Now I teach about it.

How does that work integrate with your Christian faith?

Early on in my studies, it felt as if I were living two lives—Amy the academic, who studied American politics, and Amy the follower of Christ, who wanted to grow in loving God and neighbor. But those two worlds didn’t have much overlap.

When I came to teach at Wheaton College, a richer opportunity opened: Those two worlds not only began to overlap, they were expected to overlap. At first it was a little daunting. But it opened wonderful opportunities to learn—and to encourage the church.

What big question or theme guides that integration for you?

It’s pretty simple: “How can we be more effective Christian witnesses in politics?”

That assumes we’re not presently being very effective.

Indeed. I see far more examples of Christians not being effective witnesses, or Christians behaving badly in the political arena.

Now to be fair, I have seen firsthand some amazing followers of Christ who work in politics—people on both sides of the aisle who are faithful, who bring their love for Jesus to bear in all they do. And by nature, these are usually humble people, servant leaders, who don’t draw attention to themselves or try to get plastered on the front page of newspapers. But as a whole, the Christian community has deep problems with our political engagement. It’s distressing.

Why distressing?

Because we can become something so much better than we are right now. Some of the media caricatures of Christians in politics are too well deserved—partly because those who are better examples of Christians in politics are so quiet by nature. People who are angry and shaking the Bible in voters’ faces, 100 percent convinced that they know God’s will right now—that’s distressing. And it keeps us from genuinely giving the gifts of our faith to the public square.

The Bible is full of truth. We should be inspired by God’s truth, and we should lead with God’s truth in every opportunity. But we also must remember that we remain broken, sinful people. We’re just going to get it wrong sometimes. It distresses me when people speak as if they know the perfect will of God applied to really complicated political situations. No debate, no dialogue.

Here’s the truth: Politics is about finding imperfect solutions to intractable problems. If something’s easy, government has already fixed it. Right now, anything left in the public square to debate is complicated and messy. It’s that way because we as humans are complicated and messy. We’re sinful and broken. So are our institutions. We can hold God’s perfect Word and try to apply it to our process, but our process is imperfect. We must have humility when we try to apply Scripture to politics.

So what’s the place of politics in a Christian’s life and work?

Political engagement is so useful. We can serve the common good in ways that really matter to people’s lives and freedom and opportunities. We can work through a flawed system to seek good. It’s when we lose humility and stop listening that problems happen.

One of the things that most frustrates me is the demonization of the other side. Sometimes it’s others demonizing Christians; sometimes it’s Christians demonizing others. But the bottom line is that none of us should look at someone who disagrees with us and see them as the enemy. We can have passionate disagreements—I’d be worried if we were lukewarm about issues that matter—but in our passionate views, we still need to show respect for those who disagree. They are image-bearers of God, too. We must be humble enough to learn from them.

But much of contemporary politics—Christian and otherwise—has lost that ability to listen and learn from others. We’ve lost the ability to dialogue. What we want is our own monologue. And so we all shout louder. What we really need to do is listen to one another, and try to have a two-way conversation.

You’ve done a lot of research on American political history. It seems like many people lament our current divisions as a new low. What’s your perspective?

Often people talk as if we’re in the worst political situation we’ve ever seen. I lament our current situation. I am not pleased with what I see and know we can do a lot better. But in terms of overall divisions, our country has been far worse. Yes, we’ve had eras of greater harmony. But we’ve also had eras of greater contempt.

Campaigning has always been nasty. In fact, in some ways campaigning now is less nasty than it used to be, partially because we have more people fact-checking the conversation. It used to be a lot easier to completely slander someone in the 1700s and 1800s.

And it wasn’t just wars of words. In 1856, at the end of a legislative day, Rep. Brooks went to the Senate chamber, found Sen. Sumner there, and beat him over the head with a metal cane, retaliating for a speech Sumner had given in support of abolition. It nearly killed Sumner: He was gone for three years. Southern lawmakers made rings out of that cane and wore them into session. Supportive Southern citizens mailed Brooks new canes—by the hundreds.

Of course, the most grievous example in American history is the Civil War. We got to a point in our history where our differences of opinion were so deep we literally fought one another over it, a horrific death toll—and this was a Christian crisis, not just a political one. Christians were on both sides of the Civil War. Preachers were in the pulpit in the North and in the South, reading the same Bible, even the same verses, arguing their side. It’s not just that things have been worse, but Christians have been on opposing sides of a major political debate that was ultimately resolved on the battlefield.

A complicating factor here is that the West—particularly America—has carried a religious narrative in its politics from the beginning. “City on a Hill,” for example, is a teaching of Christ appropriated out of context for the American project. How do you recommend Christians separate fact from fiction when they are trying to consider their historical and religious heritage?

Step 1 is recognizing that it’s a complicated history. Basically there are two false narratives. One is a narrative of “Christian America,” which suggests all of our founders were God-fearing evangelicals just like us, working in the name of Christ, setting up this country to do God’s work. That narrative doesn’t comport with history.

But there is an equally problematic false narrative that says religion had nothing at all to do with the American founding. That’s not true either. What we need is a deeper, more nuanced understanding of our history. Many people came to this continent from Europe looking for religious freedom. Largely, they set up theocracies—such an ironic twist for those fleeing persecution. But the fact remains faith is written on the heart of who we are as a country.

By the time we get to the Constitution, we’ve had over a century of experiments with different kinds of religiously constituted governments. Christian principles were among the inspirations of the founders’ system. But the founders decided not to set up a state church, not to set up laws directly based on the Bible, intentionally decided not to set up a government tied to the Christian religion. That’s important to remember and to celebrate.

What they did recognize was the importance of religion and faith. Even those founders—and there were many—best described as deists had a sense of God, though not a personal one, that influenced their thought and writing. Even the most deist of the founders writes about the importance of right and wrong, of morality. Many of them write with great affection for Christianity and its positive role in society.

We don’t have an explicitly Christian nation. But our founders recognized that religion in general—and Christianity in particular—offers principles, ideas and a foundation for morality that is fundamental for government. Our system is built to allow religion to flourish. Ironically, by taking away a formal connection between church and state, the founders allowed religion to flourish in a way it wouldn’t have if it were directly tied to the state.

So it troubles me to have Christians unthoughtfully yoking their faith and their politics in a way that debases both—and that I expect would have made most of the founders of our nation very uncomfortable. They were sensitive to the manipulation and abuse of religion by “Christian” governments.

With that nuanced history, what’s the gift of Christianity for the public square?

It’s important for us to recognize the vibrancy of humble Christians animated by their faith. They can improve political ideas, create a healthier public environment and serve the common good.

But we must recognize that in our system all views should have a place—all faiths, and those without explicit religious views. Our system is built to encourage a plurality of voices. A secular thinker should be able to advocate in the public square, bring their best ideas to the table and argue from their perspective. So should I, as an evangelical Protestant. I should be able to search my Holy Scriptures to learn from my faith and bring that to bear in debate over political issues of the day. Same for my Jewish neighbor and my Muslim neighbor—everyone should be able to speak openly from their faith perspective, from their honestly held worldview. It doesn’t mean I have to think all these views are equally correct. But each of us should have the same opportunity to contribute and discuss.

It concerns me in our contemporary debate to see how some Christians are being silenced because they say that their views are animated by belief. For example, we’ve seen this in some recent congressional nomination hearings, where some members of Congress seem to think that holding a genuine religious belief disqualifies a candidate from public service—as if it’s somehow wrong for people to search their faith, to have principles from their faith and to be animated by that faith and for it to give them a reason to do their work. That is sad, and troubling. We need to protect each other’s right to belief.

In Part 2 of the interview, Amy Black discusses how churches can address politics in a healthy way, how preachers should approach politics, trends in American politics, and the hope of the gospel for our current political environment.