Amy E. Black: Politics and the Church—Part 2

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)

There are some troubling signs of deepening division in our public discourse, but there is hope in the kingdom of God.

Don’t miss part one of our interview, where Amy Black talks about how she integrates faith and politics, the importance of showing respect in disagreements, separating fact from fiction about our nation’s religious heritage, and Christians’ role in the public square.

Let’s move to how this conversation affects church leaders. How might a healthy church function in this environment?

A healthy church would allow space for members to hold a range of political views, advocate for those views and still feel loved in Christ. That’s the ideal—but difficult to reach.

One thing that excites me about the idea of a healthy church that can provide respect for different political views is that it would be an incredible witness to the outside world. None of us does this political dialogue particularly well. It’s hard to have an honest conversation without people getting angry; it’s hard to ask questions of the other side without becoming defensive. Disagreement tends to devolve into anger and frustration instead of healthy dispute. These are real problems. We see them in our Facebook feed, over email, over family dinner at Thanksgiving.

But what if in our churches—where we hopefully do know and love one another well, where our bond as brothers and sisters in Christ is far deeper than any other point of connection—we were able to make genuine space for disagreeing dialogue? The outreach potential of that is huge. We’re seeing lots of examples of anger, of vitriol, of shouting matches. We’re not seeing communities so secure, so kind, that they can allow disagreements in their ranks and still be one.

I know we can do this better in the church. What if we practiced this within the church and were able to actually show others? Modeling that kind of charity and love would send such a message about the true nature of what it means to be followers of Christ and what it means to live in Christian community.

Have you seen dialogue like that in a church setting?

The beginnings of it. I’m currently involved with the Colossian Forum, an organization putting together a small-group curriculum to encourage this very kind of thing, trying to help Christians navigate cultural conflicts and talk about politics in ways that honor God. The goal isn’t to get people to choose sides; it’s trying to give people tools to help them engage in less divisive and more meaningful discussions of politics. It’s still in the pilot phase, but there’s something encouraging happening.

The best personal example that I have is from my home church. I go to a church containing a fair amount of political disagreement. As a result, the 2016 election was complicated. Our pastor is not one who tends to speak directly about politics from the pulpit, but right after the 2016 election, he sent a beautiful email to the entire church. It recognized that people had a range of responses to the election and validated that range of responses. But at the same time, he reminded us who we are as God’s people, what we are supposed to be doing, and how we could relate to each other in a way that honors each other and God. Instead of getting in the pulpit and wagging his finger at one half of the room or another, he was gently—but importantly—encouraging us. We were in different political places, but we could come together around our love for Jesus.

There is certainly a temptation for preachers to use or abuse their position to entrench their political views. What do you think about the pulpit and politics? Should we be preaching political issues?

I don’t envy the decisions pastors have to make about what to say and what not to say about politics from the pulpit. It’s important that they have the freedom to speak to their congregations what they believe God is placing on their heart, but I worry about polarizing messages. I don’t think they advance the actual cause of Christ.

If politics is about imperfect solutions to intractable problems, pastors need to be aware of that and publicly recognize it. Even heavily spiritualized politics are still human ideas, and thus flawed. I think church leaders can best serve their congregations by pointing them to the biblical principles that underlie the great debates in politics—not making calls from the pulpit for which candidate or policy they think embodies those principles.

Instead of getting out a partisan vote, I’d rather pastors help people think for themselves. What are the principles that are important for serving the common good? How do we responsibly link the timeless truth of the Bible to the complexity of modern life? What does it mean to love our neighbor? What does it mean to do justice? How would God have us act as his people? What are the hallmarks of Christian character? What does Christian virtue mean in our society? All these big picture essential questions are directly related to Christian living and will spill over into politics, just as they will into every area of our lives.

After the 2016 election, I heard people say, “The Christians did this. I thought they cared about values. I thought they cared about morality.” It shocked and haunted me—that tethering of our reputation in the eyes of outsiders to a really disturbing political trend. How do we effectively witness to outsiders considering that growing reputation for political entanglement and compromise?

It’s hard to get ahead of that narrative, because it’s based in a partial truth. We have to own our failures and compromises. There are old and disturbing patterns here. But part of what we also need to do is help people unpack the word Christian, even to unpack the word evangelical. What do we mean when we say we are Christians? What really matters to us? Not everyone who self-identifies as an “evangelical Christian” in an exit poll really believes anything remotely like historic Christianity, or attends church regularly. So, in part, there are real rifts between those whose lives are shaped by the love of Christ and his church, and those who are Christian in the same way that they are American or Republican or a Steelers fan or so forth. For many, it’s just a cultural identifier, and inherited. “Dad was a Southern Baptist, so I am, too.”

Studies show that party identity is even stronger than religious identity for many people. That means many “Christians” would stop being Christian before they stopped being a Democrat or a Republican. Think about that.

So our questions as a big, messy community have to start with the basics. Do our words and actions fit those of true followers of Christ? Does our behavior, attitude and compassion comport with Christian character and Christian virtues? If it doesn’t, it seems likely that our political allegiance is shaping faith more than the reverse—and that is dangerous territory.

I recognize that those are hard questions to ask. Sometimes we don’t want to answer those questions because it requires a deeper look in the mirror than we want to give ourselves. But people from the outside are looking at us with that kind of honesty—based on our actions. If we act unkind, intolerant, hateful or uncaring, why would they listen to our message or want what we have?

It’s interesting how relational this discussion has become. So many skills for navigating political issues aren’t about watertight arguments as much as being able to share space with grace and respect.

Absolutely. And that brings us to one of the more chilling realities of this political moment in America. One of the trends we’ve seen growing in recent decades is increased party polarization. Many people have written about this, how people’s ideological ideas are getting more sharply formed and more distant from one another. Republicans in elected office, as well as Republicans in the mass public, are becoming more conservative. Democrats in elected office and Democrats in the mass public are becoming more liberal. We’re seeing fewer and fewer moderates. There’s much more ideological distance between our two parties than there would have been even 30 years ago. The parties are moving away from the middle, people are picking a side, and the sides have become increasingly distinct.

Now, that’s not a particularly novel concept. Over time, if you look back across American history, we have times of greater and lesser party polarization. But in recent years we’ve discovered something new that I find really disturbing. It’s what we call affective polarization. What we’re finding is that it’s not just that people are becoming more polarized in their views or that their ideological positions are a farther distance from one another, but that people are holding these very distant views and then looking across the divide at the other side and making relational/moral judgments. People see themselves on the side of good, and the opposing side as the side of evil. It’s no longer a policy debate, and the stakes are rising.

We’ve now added a value judgment—I am right/good, you are wrong/evil—on top of our ideological distance. So now I don’t just disagree with you—you’re not just politically wrong—you’re morally wrong. We bring those emotional judgments into our politics, often not even realizing that we’re operating at this emotional level. Emotions override rational thinking, and we lose our ability to learn from each other or reach reasonable consensus.

This is why there’s more anger animating our politics. It’s why there’s this growing moralism underlying our politics on both sides. “I’m right, you’re wrong. I will have nothing to do with you or anyone like you.” This makes it really hard to have civil, respectful, meaningful political dialogue, because people think, Why would I want to give you the time of day? You’re just fundamentally evil.

With that context then, how can the community of Jesus point toward the perfect solution to our intractable problems?

I start with the reminder of the ultimate expression of Christ’s rule, which is that which is to come. This is what N.T. Wright calls “the life after the life after death”: the new heavens and the new earth. We know little about them, but we do know the politics of the new heavens and the new earth: God reigns. It is God’s perfect kingdom.

We’re not going to get there this side of the eschaton. We’re not going to reach perfection. But if we can keep it in mind—sometimes front of mind, and at a minimum back of mind—all will be made right. There will be perfect justice. There will be perfect love. There will be perfect community in perfect unity.

We know this kingdom is coming. We know God rules. God’s not a Republican or Democrat; he’s a monarchist. And it’s his rule. So even as I work to understand and encourage healthier Christian political engagement in the here and now, I keep my head in the clouds a little bit. I need to be reminded it will all be made right in that new time, new place, new heavens, new earth.

So how do we live in that light right now?

I find it helpful to remember that we don’t have to get it all figured out. We’re not going to get it all figured out, but it will all be made perfect. We can rest in that hope of the perfection that we know is to come, and that we, in a way that is beyond human understanding, will participate and glory in that new kingdom. And with that hope, we can do what we are capable of doing for the common good today.

In our world that’s not yet the perfect kingdom of God, where everything is definitely not yet all made right, where God does not yet rule in that kind of perfection, our main call is to be faithful. We must seek discernment for what that means to each of us. I think the answer is somewhat different for each of us in the same way each of us is uniquely created by God. We each have a particular work—there’s a reason God created us, and there’s a purpose to it.

If we can seek to be faithful where God has planted us, to the gifts that he has given us, asking how we can be faithful stewards and live out the great commandments to love God and to love neighbor, that gives us something to hold.

It’s encouraging for me to think of the many men and women in elected office who are seeking to be faithful followers of Christ. That they, like us, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and are given that gift and can pray and discern what God would have them do and follow that path and that will to God’s glory.

What’s the most important way Christians can positively intersect politics?

Pray.

I don’t mean just that we should think about maybe occasionally praying for governing leaders, or maybe we should think about occasionally praying for the problems that politics and government address. We must pray like it is our work and calling for our country. We’re commanded to pray for our leaders in 1 Timothy 2:1: “I urge then first of all that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and for all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives, in all godliness and holiness.”

I believe if we took that principle more seriously, we would experience the promised benefit of that prayer: that we will live peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness.

We like to complain about politics. We like to argue about politics. But if we spent even a fraction of all that time going to our God in prayer, praying for our leaders—particularly those with whom we disagree—praying for solutions to our vexing problems, praying for those most affected by these political problems—we would experience politics and the “other” sides so differently. In that way, prayer is far more powerful than any individual human action because we are seeking divine action, actually doing what God has asked of us instead of the million things he hasn’t that we are convinced are our Christian duty.

Any time I find myself complaining about politics, I must remind myself to turn to prayer. And to turn that complaint into prayer, because it allows me to get my heart into a better place. You see, prayer changes our hearts. It’s not just about the problems or the other people. Prayer changes us. And I believe that’s how a nation changes for the better.