Liberal evangelical Baptist David Gushee of Mercer University wrote a thoughtful analysis of President Barack Obama’s Democratic Convention acceptance speech. Gushee lamented “starry-eyed, sometimes weepy conventioneers, in both parties, at both conventions.” He concluded:
“I could wish that those pledged to Christ as Lord could function at a critical distance from either party. Instead, at least those most visible at these conventions seemed to have fully embraced Democratic Christianity or Republican Christianity, left Christianity or right Christianity. I don’t think this does either the church or the nation much good.”
Sometimes this thought is expressed as Jesus doesn’t ride a donkey or an elephant. Many evangelical elites, most but not all on the Left, have called for a detachment from partisan loyalties. Much of this call is a reaction against conservative evangelicals’ alignment with Republicans in recent decades, especially over hot button social issues. Some of these calls are rooted in a neo-Anabaptist stance, which decries any passion on behalf of the nation state as idolatry.
There obviously is some legitimate basis for this concern by Gushee and others over politically partisan loyalties for Christians. Jesus Christ Himself during his earthly walk largely avoided political engagement. His example in that regard seems especially pertinent for the institutional church, particularly the clergy, whose primary mission is evangelism and discipleship, plus ministries of compassion for the needy. But Jesus’s direct avoidance of politics is clearly not a binding example for all His followers, just as His avoidance of fatherhood, marriage, property owning and other earthly pursuits is not binding to all His followers. The Scriptures are full of God’s followers who were called to statecraft.
Jesus preached what all Scripture declares, that our primary loyalties are to God. We must not elevate politics above God, any more than we can elevate family, friends, employment, hobbies, or even good works for the needy. God is always first, and we only properly fulfill our other loves and duties by making Him the center. So Gushee and others are right to warn against searching for salvation through politics. Some of history’s greatest crimes, even in our own lifetimes, resulted from messianic, totalitarian movements that sought God’s Kingdom without God.
Historically, the Left more than the Right has sought redemption through politics. The traditional Right has been more skeptical of politics’ ability to transform the world. Instead, the Right has more than the Left emphasized religion, family, and private virtue. But clearly many on the Right and Left are guilty of not always placing God first. All of us, even at our best, fail in some regard.
But let’s not become too aloof from our earthly responsibilities, which include a concern for governance. All of us are shaped by how and by whom we are governed. Often lives literally depend on the nature of government. Politics are profoundly important. And in our democracy, our governance is determined by two great political parties. Passionate attachment to a party and its pursuit of a good society is not a sin per se. It might even be a duty.
Not all Christians have similar earthly vocations, and not all Christians are called to intense political involvements. But thankfully God has called some, whose labors make our political process function. Although all are called to prayerful concern about the state and to good citizenship, most are not called directly to political activism. It’s even true, as revealed in Scripture and through history, that sometimes faithful followers of God are placed in service to political causes seemingly at odds with God’s preferred purposes. The ways of Providence are often inscrutable but always wondrous.
What God does not call His followers to is an aloof, indifferent detachment from politics that portrays all statecraft as beneath our own supposedly lofty, spiritual purposes. And He certainly does not approve of automatic contempt for honest persons who are passionately seeking to serve society through a political party.
In our fallen world, every human system, including the institutional church, and not just politics, is corrupted by our sinful natures. But we are called by faith to strive to serve others through the flawed means available. And we trust that God will honor and use for His purposes all that we commit to Him, however frail our efforts.