Tuesday, October 22, 2013
MLK and Wilberforce show why Christians should engage more--not less--in public policy
The Southern Baptist Conference's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission new president could be understood to be discouraging political activism by Christians, in a Wall Street Journal story today in which he opines that Christians should not serve as "mascots for any political faction."
The article notes, "Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a 'visceral recoil' among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.
Doubtless the Journal chose which controversial quotes and thoughts to emphasize from the articulate and biblically committed Baptist leader--an editing process that can cause skewing of a person's actually balanced views.
The article also included a moderating statement by Moore, "We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it."
Nevertheless, any perception of a political disengagement message must be countered before it wrongly knocks some Christians out of the public policy arena and leaves our nation with policies impoverished by the absence of Christian influence.
Some Christian leaders may feel that an anti-politics message will help win back to the church some critics, especially the young, who equate Christian political involvement with nastiness and subservience to special interests. I have my doubts. Many of the young oppose political engagement by the Church because they oppose certain values the Church stands for, most notably on abortion or sexuality. You won't hear these same critics castigating the Church for engaging politically on issues such as environmental care, healthcare for the poor or human trafficking.
As far as castigating believers for hewing to political party marching orders, I work in Washington among many believers, and I can't think of a single Christian colleague who functions as a mascot for a political party. If anything, we all remain deeply distrustful of political parties and operatives, while at the same time recognizing that influencing public policy in America requires political engagement.
If many Christian prolife advocates lean Republican in political persuasion, that's not because of mindless subservience to Republican dogma but because the Republican party largely takes prolife stances whereas Democrats largely defend abortion. Nevertheless, no Christian I know thinks the Republican party is always right, principled or reliable.
One colleague even joked to me the other day, "There are two parties in Washington--the evil party and the stupid party."
My impression is that few, if any, Christians working in Washington fit the imagined mold of the blinded-by-power political "mascot." Certainly the thoughtful and winsome representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention who work in Washington politics counter that stereotype.
It remains sadly true that we followers of Christ at times have demonstrated attitudes, rhetoric and actions related to politics that require repentance. We simply need to act more like the One we represent. So yes, let us repent of judgmentalism, hypocrisy and abrasiveness in voicing our views. May God replace these qualities with spiritual qualities of grace, integrity, humility and love.
But let us never repent of engaging in the democratic political process. That is our duty and a tremendous opportunity to fight injustice and accomplish good in our society.
Imagine a world bereft of the political engagement of Christian religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, abolitionist William Wilberforce and myriad lesser-known leaders like Jonathan Mayhew, whose sermons and writings helped undergird the American Revolution. Christian political engagement has helped secure racial justice, free slaves and throw off tyranny.
As my friend and colleague Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission observes, "Public policy engagement by the Christian community is also about helping others." He outlines as examples the public policy work of followers of Christ to tackle issues ranging from human trafficking to gene patenting to abortion to immigration reform.
The Christian faith is about establishing a personal relationship with the God of the universe and about expressing that relationship by loving our neighbor. The two remain inseparable--faith and works, heaven and earth, receiving grace and showing mercy.
We demonstrate our faith in God by defending the defenseless, advocating for the poor, righting injustice. The political process offers one arena for such ministries.
It is true, as Dr. Moore emphasizes, that Christian believers belong to a different realm, far above politics--the kingdom of heaven. Yet as citizens of that kingdom, Jesus charges His followers to do all that we can to see that the kingdom comes and that His will "be done on earth--as it is in heaven."
Early Christians had little say in their governments, ruled and often persecuted by tyrannical oppressors. Still, leaders like the Apostle Paul appealed to government authorities for justice and also personally challenged governors to consider for themselves a new life in Christ.
Paul never separated evangelism from engaging with government, and neither should we. We the people of faith enjoy an opportunity to influence our government as few Christians in history or today enjoy.
The first two chapters of the biblical book of Romans show that God has revealed Himself to every person--through nature and through our consciences. Tragically, many reject that revelation, preferring self to God.
Yet many respond to that revelation, making moral choices in line with His kingdom principles. A pregnant teen chooses adoption over abortion. A tempted spouse chooses faithfulness. A person raised in bigotry chooses racial reconciliation. While none of these choices alone constitutes salvation, they all represent faith steps taken toward God. When individuals make moral choices in line with God's kingdom, they keep their hearts and minds open to God.
And that's what public policy engagement is about for Christian believers--encouraging our countrymen to take faith steps toward God. To choose life, to defend the defenseless, to advocate for the poor and downtrodden.
With this perspective, we must not disdain but instead honor the ministry of working in the political realm as an evangelistic ministry. By encouraging faith steps toward God and His principles, believers can help their fellow citizens and nation keep hearts and minds open to God and His Good News.
The Wall Street Journal notes in its article profiling Moore that "many in the religious right are stepping back from the front lines." The article also quotes Mark DeMoss, a Christian consultant for evangelical leaders in the past including Jerry Falwell, as commenting that "a growing number of evangelicals simply find politics distasteful."
Rather than stepping back from politics, more believers need to engage in public policy, proactively advancing policies promoting the welfare of their countrymen and defensively advancing religious freedom for people of faith. We can't desert the battlefield just because a few soldiers have misfired.
If some believers have fought political battles in an antagonistic way, let us show how to engage in a winsome way. If others have let bigotry and hubris mar their testimony, let us demonstrate Christ's love with grace and humility. If others have proven emissaries of ill will, let us serve as ambassadors of good will.
Like Jesus' parable of the Pharisee proudly praying in the temple while a sinner pleads for mercy, it's easy to contrast ourselves with those who have failed in the political arena, thanking God that we are not like that political-party-idolizing sinner. It's a lot harder to maintain that proud perfection in battle, with enemy bullets flying and friendly fire sending comrades running for cover.
We must not despair of the battle. Let us choose our weapons carefully and fight on.
"Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (I Corinthians 5:20).