The Questions of Christian Political Engagement

In 1896 William Jennings Bryan, a young, former congressman from Nebraska, addressed the Democratic National Convention. The paramount issue of the day was whether the United States should be on the gold standard or adopt a bimetallic system that allowed for the coinage of silver. A devout Christian, Bryan offered an impassioned speech that likened the gold standard to the crucifixion of Christ. For him, monetary policy was a clear, moral, issue. Biblical principles affirmed bimetallism; those supporting the gold standard did so out of greed or cowardice. The speech was welcomed with thunderous applause and Bryan would go on to receive his party’s nomination for President. Christians today may find it puzzling that a wonky issue like monetary policy could become a litmus test for faith and morality. And yet, Bryan was neither the first nor the last Christian to perceive political questions as an indicator of someone’s spiritual state. 

For more than two hundred years, the American church has hotly debated Christian engagement in politics. This debate has most often focused on the question of what—what policies should Christians support? Answers to this question have varied remarkably. Patriots argued for rebellion against Britain while Loyalists argued for submission. Abolitionists declared slavery a sin while its defenders declared it Biblical. Social Gospelers decried the evils of capitalism while Evangelicals decried the evils of communism. In sum, the American church has failed to craft any kind of enduring consensus on what political policies are “Biblical.” The lack of consensus suggests either the Bible does not clearly outline political policies or, if it does, the church is unable to discern it.  

While the debate over policies has not resulted in an enduring consensus, the relentless focus on the question of what has resulted in division and self-righteousness. Patriots and Loyalists, Unionists and Confederates, first condemned and then later killed each other. Social Gospelers banned the manufacturer, sale, and transportation of alcohol, while many continued to drink. Any criticism of Donald Trump by Christians is a lightning rod for Evangelical condemnation. The focus on the question of what, moreover, has distracted discussion from the more fundamental, clearer questions of why and how.  Here the Bible offers straightforward guidance. Let us first consider the question of why Christians should engage in politics.

The instinctive answer to the question of why is that Christians should engage in politics to make the world a better place. We “seek the welfare of the city” by fighting against injustice and evil. This perspective certainly motivated Abolitionists and Social Gospelers who felt political successes translated into real and lasting progress towards a better world. And yet, theology tempers such expectations. We live in a sinful world and no number of political victories will change that fact. Evil and injustice will remain part of this world until Christ returns and makes it otherwise. This in turn conjures the specter of fatalism—if the world will remain sinful until Christ’s return, why make any efforts to improve it? A more complete answer to the question of why is that Christians should engage in politics in order to reflect God’s love into the world. Yes, we should try to make the world a better place, but that is not our ultimate goal. We engage in politics as an expression of love that points the world to Christ. Christ’s example on earth illustrates this idea.

While on earth, Christ miraculously healed countless people and yet sickness and death persisted. This obviously did not surprise Christ nor was the purpose of the healings to eradicate sickness and death—he could have done that just as easily if wanted. The purpose of the miracles was to express love towards people and to testify to Christ’s authority. In the same way, the purpose of Christian engagement in politics is not to eradicate injustice and evil (which we do not have the power to do anyway) but to express love towards people and to testify to the goodness of Christ. This brings us to the question of how.

How should Christians engage in politics? In short, Christians should engage in politics in a loving manner.  Our engagement should be patient, kind, and gentle. We should not use unwholesome words to tear down political opponents or to dismiss them with pejorative labels. We should be “quick to listen, slow to speak” in an effort to understand first and then to persuade. There is no point to engaging in politics if we fail to do so in a loving manner because the political victory is hollow if it does not point people to Christ.

Centuries of divisive, self-righteous debate over policies have made it clear there will be no enduring political consensus on the question of what. There needs to be room for debate, but the debate should be gentle and gracious. Moreover, as we wrestle with the questions of what, we should not lose sight of the clearer guidance on why and how. We should be united in agreement that, whatever our political views, the purpose of our political engagement is to glorify God and, in order to do that, we must engage in politics and a similarly gentle and gracious manner. If we engage in politics with the right attitude and motivation, then we will provide an evangelistic witness to the world whether we win or lose the battle. If, on the other hand, we achieve political victories in a worldly manner, we tarnish our witness and the effort was all for naught. Political victories in and of themselves do not glorify God so much as the manner and spirit in which they are sought.