It was during my high school years that I first began to seriously think through both my faith and my political convictions. While I accepted a distinction between the two, it seemed clear that they were interconnected. Any discussion of law or policy has some sort of morality or virtue behind it: the morality behind laws governing vehicle speed on roads is rooted in the belief that human life has value and should be protected as much as possible. The laws against corruption are rooted in virtues of honesty, integrity, and transparent fairness that are necessary for trustworthy leadership. I readily accepted this and felt these ideas fit nicely in accordance with my Christian beliefs. I then felt it natural to extend these beliefs to other issues in society such as abortion, sexuality, and marriage. This union of my political values and religious values seemed quite natural the time. Of course, I recognized that some of the views I embraced seemed far more controversial than others and while I had no desire to force others to live according to my beliefs, the idea of America being a Christian nation governed by laws consistent with Christianity was easy for me to accept.
While I accepted this perspective, I was also troubled by it. I was sensing that while the Christian consensus was still prevalent, the currents of societal change were deep, powerful, and heading in a completely different direction. This began to create a spiritual crisis within me: if America was this Christian nation so rooted in God’s favor, then why were we losing? I was never able to accept ‘liberals’ as the scapegoat for every problem in life because, for me, this was a question that reflected on God himself. If God truly was this omnipotent being, and America was this nation founded under God’s guidance on Christian principles with millions of Christians adhering to those very principles, then why were we losing? Where was God in all this? I listened to apologists and church leaders try to give explanations for the direction society was heading but the explanations often rang hollow. I began to wonder if anyone really had any clue what was happening.
At the same time I was struggling with the inherent tension that came from recognizing that while millions of Americans desired to live according to Christian morality, millions of others did not. I spent many hours trying to reconcile these views, usually coming to the conclusion that these positions were simply irreconcilable, which then led me to two further conclusions; that either many people were simply going to have to accept that they must adopt, even against their will, some semblance of Christian morality, or the idea of a Christian nation had to be rethought, perhaps even abandoned.
Around my senior year of high school I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’. I was deeply impacted by his insight regarding Jesus unwillingness to coerce people to love and obey him. Yancey had this insight:
““God is not a Nazi,” said Thomas Merton. Indeed God is not. The Master of the universe would become it’s victim, powerless before a squad of soldiers in a garden. God made himself weak for one purpose: to let human beings freely choose for themselves what do with him.”
Looking at Jesus life I noted how he was willing to allow anyone to walk away and was even willing to submit to execution despite his clear power to stop the process at anytime. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” was his rebuke to Peter’s use of force against those trying to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane. Politics by it’s nature revolves around the quest for the power to govern, debate over how to use that power, and the use of force to wield that power once decisions have been reached. It seemed clear to me that there was a distinct contrast in the way Jesus viewed the pursuit and application of power compared to how it was viewed in the secular political realm. So how could I resolve this contrast? More specifically, how could I expect people who did not claim to follow Jesus to be required to live as if they did- a ‘Christian nation’- when Jesus himself did not seem to expect this of anyone?
A slew of related questions came to mind. If Jesus views on the use of power were indeed counterintuitive to how the political system usually works, then how was I as a Christian to engage the broader society? If I voted for a particular moral position, was that nothing more than oppression of those who disagreed with that position, as some would argue? Or was I simply to remain quiet as other groups made decisions for the direction of society? Did my views even matter? The nature of our government is predicated on the involvement of individual citizens, but I was increasingly unsure how to do that in a way consistent with my faith. However, there were two thoughts I was becoming convinced of though: the first was that social morality could could not be forced on people via laws or court rulings, particularly once a certain moral position had been rejected. Relying on the Supreme Court to maintain moral positions was a losing strategy. The second insight, which explained the first, was that Jesus views on the nature of power had a totally different focus. As Yancey noted
“Why does God content himself with the slow, unencouraging way of making righteousness grow rather than avenging it? That’s how love is. Love has it’s own power, the only power ultimately capable of conquering the human heart.”
‘Christian America’ could not be maintained if people’s hearts were unwilling, and no amount of laws or court decisions could change that. The battle ground was human hearts, not elections or Supreme Court nominations.
As I moved on to college, I knew I was going to have to rethink a lot of my faith. While I accepted that using laws trying to enforce Christian ethics and morality was not going to be an effective way to change society, I was still unsure what other course of action to take. Viewing the heart as the primary battleground gave me hope as I was confident that the power of God’s love could change human hearts. Enough changed hearts could change communities, perhaps even the whole country. I now viewed Jesus as apolitical and distanced myself from politics. In truth, through, my a lot of my distancing from politics stemmed from my continued uncertainty on how or even if I should participate in the political system. I had hope that God could change individual hearts, but my outlook on society as a whole was something closer to despair.
It was during this period of my life (sophomore year of college if I remember correctly) that I discovered, or more accurately rediscovered, the writings of C. S. Lewis. I had read the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia (which I still find fantastic years later), and had brief exposure to The Screwtape Letters as a child. I had mostly forgotten about Lewis until spotting a book of his in a Christian book store. As I began to read his books I found someone who was truly able to provide insight into my many questions involving faith, at a time I badly needed it. His essay ‘Membership’ in particular spoke to some of my dilemma regarding faith and politics. He noted that:
“I think it probable that the collectivism of our life is necessary, and will increase, and I think that our only safeguard against its deathly properties is in a Christian life….The Christian is not called to individualism but membership in the mystical body. A consideration of the differences between the secular collective and the mystical body is therefore the first step to understanding how Christianity without being individualistic can yet counteract collectivism.”
Later in the essay he stated:
” I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise the commonwealth needs there advise. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand you may believe that fallen men are so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.”
As I read through this essay I began to realize that I had spent too much of my life trying to view my faith through the lens of politics, rather than seeing my politics through the lens of faith. Lewis’s assertion that Christian community was the anti-dote to both the excesses of individualism and of collectivism in all it’s forms was eye opening to me. I had previously viewed conservatism as the champion of individual freedoms and liberalism the champion of forced collectivism (i.e state power such as socialism and communism). Much of the political debate seemed to be between these positions. But perhaps more important was the realization I now had that both the conservative and liberal points of view had some legitimate insights into the truth of our existence, and that this truth was understood when viewed through a theological framework. The liberal ‘tree hugger’ was correct in lamenting the destruction of the natural world God made, and calling out the human greed and selfishness that thinks too little of other living things. The conservative was right when noting that humanity was given a place of authority over nature, and in a fallen world we must earn a living even if some harm is done to nature.
The liberal and conservative may not even consider themselves religious or accept the Christian worldview, but because both are made in the image of God, that image is still there even when it is twisted or ignored. Our expressions will always reveal, in some measure, our true nature even when we are rebelling against God. It takes ‘theological eyes’ to see the into the heart and hear those expressions of anger, bitterness, sorrow, despair, and fear that are the true wellspring of so many of our political expressions. Because we were created by God we will always seek Utopia, and because the world is fallen we will always be disappointed, angry and heartbroken in that search, unless recognize as Peter did that we are ‘foreigners and exiles’ in this world. This shift in my perspective pushed me further along the path that I had started on. Yancey helped me to see that true power was the power to change hearts, while Lewis fleshed out a theological framework that began to help me make sense of the tension and conflicted feelings I had regarding the interaction between politics and religion.
In the years since, I have continued searching along these lines of thought, and the events of the last year have revealed that the question of how Christians ( in particular evangelical Christians) should interact with the political system in a way that is most consistent with our faith is one of the most important questions facing us. It has proven divisive in churches, families, friendships, and strongly impacted how non-believers view us. I have shared the story of my own personal journey on this issue as an introduction for a series of posts I hope to publish in the coming weeks, but also to encourage you to think through how you have arrived at your current convictions. I would love to to hear from anyone who reads this post about who or what has influenced your thinking. So for those who had the fortitude to slog through the story of my experiences to make it to the end of this post…please leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with some of your thoughts.
I look forward to hearing from you.
The C. S. Lewis quotation in this post came from the address ‘Membership’ from the collection of sermons and essays linked below. *I receive a small percentage from any sales generated through this link.*
|The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses
By C.S. Lewis / HarperOne
Nine sermons and addresses delivered by Lewis during World War II, including “Transposition,” “On Forgiveness,” “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” “Learning in War-Time,” and his most famous, “The Weight of Glory.” “These display color, power, and profound thinking,”—Evangelical Beacon. Paperback with French flaps and deckled page edges.
|The Jesus I Never Knew
By Philip Yancey / Zondervan
In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey reveals the real Jesus beyond the stereotypes, offering a new and different perspective on the life of Christ and his work—his teaching, his miracles, his death and resurrection—and ultimately, who he was and why he came. Relating the gospel events to the world we live in today, The Jesus I Never Knew gives a moving and refreshing portrait of the central figure of history.