Tag Archives: the politicisation of everything

,

The church of the excluded middle

If there’s one thing we learned in the recent Australian election, just one ‘take home’ message, it’s that there aren’t just deep fault lines between religious and non-religious Australians, but, increasingly, there are fault lines running through the Christian community. I’m not sure ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Australian politics — or within the Australian church — have ever been more polarised. But then, I am still reasonably young…

The stakes seemed pretty high for religious Aussies, what with lobby groups like the ACL doubling down on ‘religious freedom’ and ‘keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament’ as two of their top five areas of policy concern for Christians’ (which led them to hand out how to vote cards that supported One Nation in certain ‘battleground’ seats (for what it’s worth, Tony Abbott’s pugilistic campaign page ‘battlelines.com.au’ seems to have been a misfire)). The Labor Party’s policy on abortion was also an issue of widespread concern amongst Christian voters — but that tends to be one that crosses the right/left divide amongst Christians in lots of cases. Meanwhile, my friends on the left seemed keen to play down religious freedom as an issue (especially as it connects to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding ex-Wallaby Israel Folau), even as Labor Party insider after insider comes out flagellating the party for ‘disconnecting’ itself from the average religious punter (and, for what it’s worth, in my little bit of political punditry in my previously linked piece on abortion, I suggested Labor’s platform revealed they believed the Christian constituency to be so insignificant a force that they could not just ignore it, but trash it and ‘wedge’ Christian conservatives as the ‘bad guys’, turns out if that’s the strategy, they were wrong, and I remain curious about the impact Israel Folau had on this misread)… That said, my friends on the left are dismayed by the failure for, in Abbott’s words, the issue of climate change to be treated as a moral issue not an economic one, for a lack of movement in Australia’s generosity via foreign aid, and for many of us with friends who sought asylum in Australia there’s a particular grief about more years of limbo and dispassionate dehumanisation of these vulnerable members of our community (calculated dispassion at this point seems morally worse to me than passionate objection to the issue — plus, if boat turnbacks have “stopped the boats,” the whole rationale for keeping people from settling in Australia permanently is gone; either that policy is working or it isn’t). 

The stakes seem high for fellowship amongst Christians who are ideologically convicted or partisan, or even just ‘centrist’ (and not in the sense of trying to find a synthesis between every policy issue, but rather, in the sense of recognising that where the right tends to focus on individual responsibility and a conservative impulse, and the left tends to focus on systemic issues and solutions, and a progressive narrative, there’s actually truth and wisdom to be found in holding those poles in tension). People on either pole seem keen to take to Twitter to disavow the political other — to pull the church in a political direction based on an ideological assumption of ‘Gospel truth’ linking up with a particular stance, and in doing so, to dismiss the good faith reasons their brothers and sisters in Christ give for holding different convictions as matters of liberty, wisdom, and an application of our limited, creaturely, ability to actually know how to tackle incredibly complex questions in an increasingly globalised world. 

At the same time as political questions get treated as though the answers must be found at the ‘poles’; theological questions are also being resolved in the same way; ‘tension’, ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox’ are increasingly terms to be viewed with suspicion. Where once unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things might was an ‘ideal’ — it has been replaced with a sort of philosophy that looks like:  ‘unity is essential, charity towards those who disagree with us is unnecessary and perhaps unfaithful’. This seems to come from a growing fear that our churches are like the lifeboats dropping off the sinking Titanic of Christendom which has just crashed into the iceberg of secularism — means everybody is clamouring to clearly mark out their space. The way this plays out is in a phenomenon observed by James Davison Hunter in his To Change The World; he was writing about the polarising nature of public life once everything in public life is ‘politicised’ — where we outsource all major decisions and recognition of what matters to law makers — but this observation is also true of the institutional church as it adopts the ‘politics’ of the world around it. Hunter says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicisation is the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems. The biggest problem is how to create or reinforce social consensus where little exists or none could be generated organically. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases.” — James Davison Hunter

In a time where we feel a need for certainty within our church structures — the sort you want when you jump in a lifeboat hoping it will hold up your weight — our churches seem to be turning to writing ‘policies’ or ‘statements’ (or feeling the pressure to sign up to competing statements like the Nashville Statement or the Revoice Statement on sexual ethics) where once there was liberty. We’re running to the poles and creating ‘laws’ or ‘lines’ or ‘boundaries’ on questions where uncertainty might not have been such a bad thing; partly this is a pressure placed on the church by external political forces — the more our civic life is subject to legislation around what behaviour and expression is welcome in public, the more clearly we will be compelled to outline our ‘doctrinal positions’ in the face of legal action, like, for example, whether or not a Christian school’s treatment of a same sex attracted staff member or transgender student is an expression of its doctrine; that these questions are now viewed through a political or legal lens rather than a pastoral one is one of the great failings of the church as we’ve been co-opted into this new reality. 

Hunter sees this ‘politicisation’ emerging as a result of an increasing trend for people to process truth through the shortcut of their ideological framework. We no longer have shared beliefs about much of what was once held in ‘common’ which means everything is contested; and if truth is contested, especially in the public, and especially where the ‘public’ is the same as ‘the political’ — you’re better off being a ‘winner’ than a ‘loser’; and ultimately we lose (as we seek to find) our ‘self’ as it becomes subsumed into an ‘ideology’ and then an ‘identity,’ he says:

“Politicisation is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicisation provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarisation is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics.” — James Davison Hunter

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says there’s a ‘religious’ fervour at the heart of polarisation in the west; he sees it as a product of a political Manichaeism — where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are polar opposites at war with one another and the ‘good life’ or ‘good society’ is about victory over evil, not compromise. His model of human behaviour — where ‘the rider’ (our reason), tries to control but is ultimately pulled about by ‘the elephant’ (our emotions and desires), suggests attempts to negate polarisation without tackling this ‘religious’ elephanty disposition towards combat will be pointless. He also says that in this climate using reason alone in political (or theological) disagreements won’t persuade the other, because discussions in this context will feel, and often be, combative. 

“If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

He, like Hunter, sees polarisation coming as a result of ideology — and his book makes interesting observations about the different moral foundations brought to bear by the left and the right on each issue (and Christians can readily affirm each category). The catch is, those different foundations gear us to respond differently to the same facts — and our view of what is ‘true’ in areas of dispute will be affected by these foundations not just our theological system. Haidt says:

Several studies have documented the “attitude polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.

As this politicisation, polarisation, and move to ‘lawmaking’ plays out at a ‘structural’ level in the institutional church, it also hits home in the local church. I can speak from personal experience that to either deliberately not adopt a position (as our church did during the plebiscite), or to adopt a ‘nuanced’ theological position (as our church does on the question of same sex attraction — where our public teaching has been more aligned with Revoice than with Nashville in that particular part of an inter-nicene ‘culture war’ (I am way prouder of that pun than I should be), comes at a cost. People leave. People want the certainty of a floating lifeboat with high rigid walls, not a rubber dinghy that might get tossed about a bit, but that might also allow a few more people to cling to the sides because it’s closer to the waterline. This too, is a failing of the modern church — a failing to understand who we are called to be; and what sort of community we are meant to be united in Christ, by his Spirit, maintaining fellowship as our chief expression of that unity when it comes to ‘disputable matters’ (note Paul’s ethical approach in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10-11). To leave a community over a political issue or an attempt to be accommodating to people with multiple views is to tear apart the body of Christ that the Spirit of God is knitting together and taking towards maturity; and this maturity is the sort that comes from bumping into one another; from disagreement with a commitment to relationship in Christ above our political concerns, or even matters of disputable doctrine in areas where our knowledge or certainty is limited, like, for example, if intersex people are intersex because their bodies have both male and female characteristics, and we are forced to accommodate such a reality in our theology, how is this definitively different not so much from the ‘psychological’ reality of a transgender person but the physical and neurological realities that we can observe with brain scans? How can we speak with dogmatic certainty on that issue, or, like the current debate around the language of ‘gay Christian’ adopted by same sex attracted people who hold to a traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, but nonetheless want to make claims about their experience without making a claim about their ‘identity’ or ‘ontology’ (a group explicitly excluded by the Nashville Statement, and a position championed by Revoice (which has now been rejected by the Central Carolina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America whose panel again (which included the Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung), seems to have brought their conclusions to the table before listening to the people they’re engaging with on ‘their’ terms).

Why must we draw ‘lines’ on these issues? What purpose does such line drawing serve except to move more into the ‘essential’ category, bound by ‘laws’ that suddenly exclude those previously included in liberty or treated with charity?

There’s a law in logic, that when falsely applied creates a fallacy — the law of the ‘excluded middle‘. 

“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true”

When we reduce our beliefs to propositional statements; to ‘law’; we don’t just codify a position, we negate other positions. Nashville does this with a series of ‘we affirm’… ‘we deny’ statements; but even simply by affirming a particular propositional truth and not bringing the denial to the table we necessarily exclude. 

The ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ kicks in where a propositional statement creates a false dilemma; where we create ‘poles’ where no poles were necessary and declare the other pole ‘negated’. It’s this rush to the poles that is excluding so many Aussies in the political process, so that many of us report being disenfranchised and disillusioned; but it’s a similar rush to the poles that is destroying unity and fellowship the same way a mad rush for the lifeboats at the expense of all one’s fellow travellers ‘excludes’ those who don’t get a berth. 

So many of our present political and theological dilemmas are built on false dilemmas; on zero sum games that simply fail to imagine third options. Talk to people occupying those positions — like those in the Revoice Movement, or other ‘celibate gay Christians’ and you’ll hear they feel stuck in the middle of the full blown ‘affirming’ movement — the iceberg — when it comes to questions of sexual ethics and desire, and the ‘negative’ movement which has us running to the life boats on the HMAS Christendom. Not just ‘stuck in the middle’ — but ‘excluded in the middle’; and this seems true in my experience of so many other ‘flashpoint’ issues in our churches and especially in the church’s relationship to worldly power and politics. 

It is hard to be a ‘church of the excluded middle’ — because both poles don’t want to make space for you; nobody is sure if you’re an ally or an enemy. You catch friendly fire and unfriendly fire, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. People flee the ‘uncertainty’ of no man’s land for the trenches on either side of the culture war, when it’s actually drawing combatants from either side together in no man’s land that might create the conditions for a cease fire in the culture wars, not a ‘total defeat’ of the other, but a figuring out how to live side by side, peacefully, in disagreement. It’s precisely those who don’t have a ‘polarised’ position (and the centre probably is a pole all of its own) who might actually help persuade your ideological enemy of the benefits of your position, if they can draw you from your ideologies long enough to talk to one another.  

Here’s my hunch though; and it’s one that I’d say is a driving philosophy behind how we’re trying to approach being the post-secular-iceberg church — a ‘church of the excluded middle’, one that rejects the push to polarisation and to ‘legislating’ on issues of liberty is better placed for both discipleship and evangelism. It’ll keep more people afloat by being less brittle or rigid, and it’ll allow more people to cling to the sides before pulling themselves on board. A group of churches — or Christians — functioning this way will also be the sort of group that can accommodate people who have ideological convictions built from different moral foundations that would otherwise throw them to the poles; and this will be for the good of our shared moral vision. But more than this, a church of the ‘excluded middle’ that is clear on the essentials will cling to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith; it will see unity in Christ and in the truth of God’s word as timeless, and so be less shaken by the winds and waves of the freezing and deadly water we now navigate. It will listen to those voices that might otherwise be swamped — like those occupying the middle ground in the sexuality debate who are clinging both to Jesus and the traditional teachings of the Church seeking to faithfully interpret the Bible. It will conserve what should be conserved as conservative voices are heard charitably, and will reform what needs to be reformed as progressive voices call for change. It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, an ideal of its own; an ideology to be pursued in ways that might ultimately also exclude ‘truth’ or certainty. But it might just be the sort of community that Paul is imagining in 1 Corinthians 12 as he’s just outlined some real issues around the disputable matter of idol food in the city of Corinth; the sort of community that is to find its unity in Christ, by the Spirit, and use that unity as a foundation, or corrective, in all their disputes (like those Paul addresses in the rest of the letter) as they grow towards maturity and the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). This necessarily requires people living together in disagreement and working out how to love one another in disagreement not just running to lifeboats where you agree with everyone else on board. 

This is also the picture Haidt paints of the sort of community that might escape the destructive ‘religious’ spirit of our age; and the sort that might be not a lifeboat escaping an iceberg, but a lighthouse pointing people from it; the sort that might model an alternative to the politicisation of everything and the reduction of each person to a combatant — enemy or ally — in some culture war. Here’s Haidt:

“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

Worried about how Christianity gets treated in the political realm? Join a party for God’s sake (and your neighbour’s).

Do you ever feel like Christianity is profoundly misunderstood by those outside the fold? Do you feel maligned by the way the church is spoken about by the ‘left-wing media’ and by those with ‘progressive’ political agendas?

Are you worried about religious freedom, or that Australian culture is falling apart, in part because it is ignoring the Christian framework and heritage underpinning many of the good things and institutions that keep our society together?

Are you a Victorian Christian feeling like the state Labor government has some pernicious agenda to wipe you out of public life?

Are you at the point of wondering whether the approach of ‘lobbying’ is actually working, or even an approach to worldly power that Christians should be adopting?

Are you perhaps frustrated by the fruit borne by the approach to the political sphere that looks like starting a ‘Christian’ party, or ‘Christian lobbying’ that seems to get its agenda from the ‘political right’ or some sort of moralistic framework that seems far too interested in sex or Christian self-interest?

Are you a total Mike Baird fan boy, or fan girl?

It’s possible you answered yes to one or more of these questions; if so, might I humbly submit a solution.

Join a political party, for God’s sake, and the sake of your neighbour. 

Get involved. Not because political solutions are solutions for every problem of modern life. Not to build some sort of Christian empire or the kingdom of God via the political process, but because some political problems actually require political solutions.

You know the thing about political parties in Australia… they’re democratic. They’re also, by lots of reports, struggling for numbers; and perhaps a chance for you to have a disproportionate influence on policy for the sake of your neighbours. You might even get to run for office; and so stand in the tradition of a long line of Christians who have been actively involved in government as a way to love and serve both God and country.

Perhaps the way to no longer be misunderstood is to make ourselves known by being part of the process (maybe we need Christians who pursue journalistic excellence in the mainstream press, so take their place in newsrooms and editorial meetings around the country too). Perhaps our tendency to build Christian cultural ghettos is coming back to roost; ironically as the state steps in to make those ghettos ‘less Christian’ (via legislation about employment discrimination); maybe the ironic and irenic response would be for Christians to stop blasting our politicians with screeds and lobbying campaigns, and rather, to go to where they are.

If regular church attendance in Victoria is in line with the national average (8%) then there are 456,800 church goers in Victoria. In the midst of a membership push and a reworking of the party’s framework a couple of years ago designed to give members more power, Kevin Rudd revealed the Labor Party has about 40,000 members nationally… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it… what it would look like if some of those 456,800 church attendees signed up and just started faithfully turning up to branch meetings?

The church needs both clean hands and dirty hands when it comes to politics

 

I’d like to propose three ways for us to think about being political citizens of God’s kingdom in the modern world. Three ways that don’t necessarily overlap, but that we need to make space for in our conversations about politics within, and outside, the church.

  1. Clean hands: There’s certainly a role for Christians to have a prophetic voice from outside the political system; where we keep our hands ‘clean’ (and non-partisan) in order to call our leaders (and public) to an idealised vision of life together as global citizens. This voice might call for ‘political’ solutions via government, but it might also invite imaginative solutions from the ‘public’ (and Christians in the public) apart from professional politics. This is the sort of approach that recent posts on voting as a Christian and letter writing as a Christian have explored (though they’ve also worked on the assumption that the following two options are legitimate and important).
  2. Busy hands: Which leads to the second sort of ‘political’ work; the work that involves creating institutions that work for ‘political’ change in the broadest sense — ie meaningful change for the good of citizens of the ‘polis’ (be that local, state, national, or global). Christians have a great track record in starting these ‘institutions’ (including schools, charities, welfare agencies, hospitals, and more recently social enterprises that tackle particular problems. I believe we’ve dropped this from our thinking a little recently because we’ve been conditioned to see this third model as the way to make ‘real change’ happen.
  3. Dirty hands: The assumption in the modern west is that real change happens through policy-making. This is the trend that gave birth to the religious right, but that also underpins the progressive movement and its attempt to create a secular utopia via legislation. There’s also a need for other Christians to take up the challenge of getting our hands ‘dirty’ through involvement in the political process, in established political institutions (our political parties) in a manner that will ultimately involve the ‘suffering’ of compromise. The ‘dirty hands’ label comes from a talk I heard from Julia Gillard’s speechwriter/advisor Michael Cooney (mentioned here) on being a partisan political actor with an active faith; it draws on a political ethics essay by Michael Walzer that compares partisan actors who are willing to compromise in hard and messy political situations (and so dirty their hands) to achieve slightly more righteous ends to the ‘suffering servant’ from Isaiah.

Here’s some interesting analysis from a McCrindle Research post on some National Church Life Survey data (it is a few years old now).

The NCLS data (2011) shows that most Christians believe that Christians should be active in public policy through making public comment on policy issues (80% support this), advocating and lobbying governments (75%), and almost two-thirds (63%) believe that the church should publically advocate on policy issues, and more than two-thirds (68.5%) believe that church goers should campaign for global poverty and injustice issues.

It’s interesting that the questioning behind these results assumes the role of the church (institutionally) looks like the ‘clean hands’ option. It’s hard to make a distinction between the institution of ‘church’ and what members of the church do in the world if you’re a fan of the ‘priesthood of all believers’… and these categories obviously overlap a little because I’d expect politicians who are Christians to be politicians driven by convictions that their primary citizenship is in God’s kingdom, but an awareness that their role will involve some compromise, and I’d also expect them to be more open to hearing the voices of those with ‘clean hands’ (even if sometimes those idealised voices might be frustratingly detached from the real world of politics).

Personally I’ve figured out that I have a strong preference towards 2, with some parts of my job meaning that 1 (particularly being non-partisan) is important… But I would be incredibly supportive of people in my congregation joining (almost) any political party; from the Greens to the Libs, with a vision for being a faithful Christian voice in the policy discussions of those parties. I’m not suggesting engaging in the democratic party by stealth or takeover; but rather becoming part of established community institutions in order to offer a faithful presentation of what Christians believe, and policy solutions that come from a Christian imagination about what a good life in secular community might look like. We Christians have something to offer when it comes to inter-faith relations because the very nature of the history of the church is that we’ve emerged from other faiths and defined ourselves against those faiths while also being called to love our neighbours who disagree with us. Christians have long thought of themselves as ‘exiles’ living amongst people we’re called to love as part of our ‘citizenship’; and that has led Christians, historically, to all three positions outlined above.

… Hands shaped by the cross of our King

If you want a precedent for getting involved in the political process (apart from Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, who managed to work in two of the Bible’s most anti-God regimes while being commended as ‘righteous’); look no further than Erastus, who Paul mentions in Romans 16. Erastus managed to rise to a form of political prominence in the Roman imperial regime in Corinth (then, of course, there’s Constantine).

Part of the more recent secularistion or ‘church in exile’ narrative acknowledges how hard it is to be a Christian in a post-Christian age; but lots of our collective handwringing seems to forget that we’ve still got small bits of social capital to spend on the way out, and also that we were part of setting up lots of these institutions and still have some ability to ‘game the system’… we’ve just been too focused on other stuff. The nature of the sort of democratic approach to politics born out of Christian convictions about the inherent dignity of all people is that politics is still fundamentally (as much as it is influenced by other forces like lobbyists) a ‘numbers game’… and it’s the people who are in the meetings who get to set the policy agenda. This isn’t an invitation to grab power and to use it to beat up our enemies; that would be to make the mistake of the Christian right. It’s an invitation to consider what faithful presence in our civic institutions looks like in a way that makes space for different views and communities in our polis. It’s not about taking up the ‘sword’ of Government (as Romans describes civic rule), but figuring out how the cross of Jesus shapes an approach to the ‘sword’… The cross-shaped approach to politics isn’t about domination or wielding power and influence, but serving; it’s about knowing the limits of human political power, but also about offering oneself as a sacrifice, in this way, for the sake of our neighbours. That, incidentally, is the approach we see modelled in the Old Testament by exiles-in-political office.

I’d love to see Christians joining all our parties; from personal conviction, not simply to win a legislative bunfight out of self-interest (or group-interest). There’s not a policy platform out there that wouldn’t benefit from a Christian imagination being incorporated via the presence of more Christians. A Christian imagination shaped by the message of the Gospel and the understanding that Jesus is both true king and example; this sort of transformed imagination brings both:

a) a particular sort of altruism born from the recognition of the inherent, created, dignity and value of the marginalised or ‘less productive’ person, and
b) a particular vision of what a flourishing secular human society could be, where space is made to see individuals and communities with different convictions about life as neighbours to be loved, rather than enemies to be defeated (and even if people are ‘enemies’ we’re called to love them too).

These would be of benefit to the Liberal/National Coalition, to the Labor Party, to the Greens, to the Nick Xenophon Team, and you know, to One Nation as well. While I don’t want to totally outsource solutions to public life in Australia to the political realm, I’d love to see more Christians join these parties; rather than just sniping from the sidelines, or seeing our democratic participation exhausted at the ballot box or via a few letters here and there. I love the idea too, that Christians in partisan politics might model a better way of operating across the partisan divide (and this is where I think model 2 from the 3 above has real benefit in that it might create the sort of spaces that can unify people across this divide).

There are those writing about the situation for Christians in Victoria who seem to assume that ‘progressive politics’ (or the left) is, in itself, the enemy. I’d want to suggest that we all, as Christians, want some sort of ‘progress’ as a civilisation; we all want to be always reforming, or always transforming; and as Christians we have a particular kingdom shaped view of what progress looks like (and sometimes people in the past got it right, so real ‘progress’ for humanity might lie in conserving certain things). All our parties have ‘messy’ platforms and ideologies that are ‘anti-Christian’ or ‘anti-Christian-values’; so to do the broader ‘right’ and the ‘left’…  but there are also opportunities to bring goodness and truth to our neighbours within the parameters of each platform/ideology. The left tends to see the world ‘systematically’; where problems (like systemic injustice) need systemic solutions (like big government, and legislation that impacts ‘institutions’ or systems); and this does fit with a Christian understanding of sin (when sinful people get together it shouldn’t surprise us that they build systems marred by sin); the right tends to see problems and solutions resting with individuals. There’s a paradox here where the problems in our world are both… Perhaps it is to our detriment that reformedish or evangelical Christians have been so fixated on the individual nature of humanity (and salvation and stuff), that we’ve become suspicious of the progressive left and considered it part of the problem.

Some words of caution from James Davison Hunter

A lot of this ‘faithful presence’ thinking comes as I work my way through James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World; and I’m a bit worried that this proposal runs the risk of reinforcing a problem he’s diagnosed in how we westerners think of public, civic or political life. There are, as option 2 above suggests, other ways to tackle social problems that also benefit from the presence of Christians.

It’s important not to buy into the modern view of politics, and to recognise the limits of political solutions, which, as he puts it:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Hunter warns Christians in politics (on the right or left) against using the state as a vehicle for a ‘Christian’ agenda; or to ‘aspire to a righteous empire’  (he uses this common criticism of the Christian right to critique the Christian left), and he also wants us to avoid political participation being the ‘easy way out’… he sees a role for the church as an alternative, autonomous, political framework (our first citizenship even), suggesting that Christian engagement in politics needs to avoid reducing the role of the church to just another political party.

“… in the Christian faith, one has the possibility of relatively autonomous institutions and practices that could—in both judgment and affirmation—be a source of ideals and values capable of elevating politics to more than the quest for power. But the consequence of the whole-hearted and uncritical embrace of politics by Christians has been, in effect, to reduce Christian faith to a political ideology and various Christian denominations and para-church organizations to special interest groups.”

And here’s two specific warnings on the particular advice at the heart of this post… first, for us not to avoid the difficulty of costly non-political solutions, and second, to work to undo the common view that politics is the solution to all our social problems (it is, however, a solution to political problems), and it would be amazing to have more politicians buying in to a view of the world that doesn’t see politics as where all the action is.

“Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.”

“Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression… Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations… To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better.”

I’ve reached out to a few friends who are members of various political parties to share their thoughts in a follow up post; and if you are a Christian, and a member of a party, I’d love to hear from you about your experience.