Are Christians Obliged to Participate in Politics?
This is what I get for tweeting. This is especially what I get for tweeting a line from an article I am currently writing out of context. Here it is:
And a follow-up tweet with an excerpt from Reclaiming Hope and the talk I’ve given around the country that provides a bit more context for the tweet:
The tweet didn’t receive a whole lot of pushback, but some people did offer a…different opinion. Notably, Joseph Bottum, whom I disagree with on quite a bit, but also respect. See, in particular, his First Things essay on Death and Politics which has helped shape some of my thinking on the pandemic and our political response.
Here was Bottum’s response:
So, I want to focus on the aspect of his contention which is valid and that I agree with to a certain extent (as far as it goes) that there is not an overriding, irrevocable Christian obligation to participate in politics.
What I will not focus on, but quickly dispense with, is Bottum’s notion, which isn’t supported by the tweet itself or the slightest familiarity with my work, that I believe “only politics is good enough” and that I believe that politics, essentially, makes up the sum of Christian life. Of course, my work has insisted that this is not the case. Reclaiming Hope was entirely a book about not placing our hope in politics. I insist in a range of forums, many of them not all too happy to hear it, that politics is not ultimate. I have vocally and vociferously pushed back on those who wish to sum up Christianity by where they determine it stands in the political fights of the day. Following Jesus entails all of life, but can certainly never be summarized by one’s political positions or public activity. I’m afraid Bottum simply has a well-worn peeve here that he has misguidedly launched at me (I can’t help but wonder if he’s aimed it at those he considers part of his political tribe?). Which is unfortunate.
A better point of debate here, one in which I readily admit I might be wrong, is whether there is a Christian obligation to participate in politics. So let me describe how I get there, briefly, and you can sort it out yourself (for more, please see my first book, Reclaiming Hope).
I am not prepared to argue, and do not argue in my books or talks, that there is a Christian obligation to participate in politics that transcends time and space, and applies to Christians in all political systems. My argument that there is a Christian obligation to participate in politics is specifically to American Christians (and, I guess, by virtue of my argument, Christians who live in democracies of one sort or the other where they are endowed with the office of “citizen”). This obligation is derivative, not direct, and taken from sources such as Jeremiah 29 (a call to distinctly Christian participation in the life of the city: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’”) and Romans 13 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”). I’d add here that “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” in a democratic society seems to me to suggest some level of participation in a form of government that is inherently participatory.
More generally, there is a clear call in scripture to pursue justice, and in our society justice as administered by the government is something we are implicated in as citizens. To pursue justice in the areas of our life where we have an effective will is to be faithful. We have an effective will in politics because we hold the office of citizen. Therefore, some level of political involvement is faithful. At the very least, I would argue, Christians are obliged to think Christianly about politics, even in the cases where Christian thinking might lead us not to participate in a particular instance.
So where might I be wrong here?
First, I could just be wrong entirely. Maybe the anabaptists have it right? Who am I to not allow for even the possibility that an entire Christian tradition might be right? I don’t think they are…but they might be.
Second, when I say that there is a Christian obligation, I mean for that to apply as a general rule or idea, not as a burden for individual Christians who, in discernment, do not participate in politics. By all means, hermits and mystics, do not allow yourselves to feel burdened by my tweet! Bottum is certainly right, if pedantic, to offer such a retort. Surely, there are vocational callings and personal burdens that might justify political withdrawal for a season of life or even a lifetime. My only defense here is that it was a tweet, and not a treatise. I sometimes tweet with the expectation that even vague familiarity with my work will allow the reader to assume certain things without my having to state them explicitly.
I wrote the tweet, and talk so much about the Christian motivation to participate in politics, because it has become common for some Christians to speak of politics as though it is an area in which they are only implicated should they choose to participate in it. And so political withdrawal becomes a way to “wash one’s hands” of what they view as a corrupt system. Instead, I argue that because you are a citizen, you hold an appropriate level of responsibility for our politics whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. That the choice in front of us is not whether or not we are responsible, but how we are to steward the responsibility we have.
So you’ll notice that when I speak of a Christian’s political responsibility, I do not advance a sort of minimal participation requirement—you must vote this often, you must donate this much to political causes, you must volunteer this much time, you must share your political opinions this often, etc. Not only do I accept that when taken to the level of the individual there may be reasons, Christian reasons, not to engage in politics. I also believe there are wide, extremely wide, parameters for what fulfilling that obligation might look like for each Christian in different seasons of their life. Certainly, not every Christian is called to work in politics (thankfully), and not every Christian is required to support specific campaigns (also, thankfully). The Christian’s political obligation, if there is one, extends from the Christian obligation to love our neighbor. In American society, our neighbors’ well-being is deeply implicated by political decisions in which we have a say.
Personal charity, for instance, is important. I admire those who provide direct or financial aid to the hungry or the homeless. There is not “but” here. Charity is valuable on its own, and there are far too many who believe merely holding political positions is a replacement from actually acting in the world. The same Christian impulse to charity should be at play when we think about political decisions that have the potential to harm or help the homeless or the hungry. It is a good thing to sponsor a child through World Vision, for instance. Yet, there are political decisions that can be made, that are made, that undermine the very work World Vision does to support that same child. We are not responsible for those political decisions in the same way as we are for our personal charity, but still we ought to think Christianly about the responsibility we do have for those decisions. The truth is that politics will act on us, especially the vulnerable, whether we participate in it or not.
Finally, an important reminder, I think. Historically, there are not many (some, but not many) communities in America that have held consistently to the idea that Christians are not to participate in politics. Instead, what we’ve seen much more of are Christian communities who are comforted by the status quo and have the luxury of not participating in politics, and then mobilize and organize politically when their individual interests are at stake. In other words, I’m skeptical that many of the calls for political quietism, political withdrawal, hold up when self-interest is on the line. You’ll find that many of the people who do not believe there is a general Christian obligation to political involvement often argue for Christians to act politically on specific occasions on the basis that the issue at stake goes “beyond politics.”
I’m afraid the practical outcome of the argument that there is no sort of essential Christian motivation for political involvement is that when many Christians then enter politics, they do so motivated by self-interest, not Christian love, and they treat politics as a realm of life where Christian faithfulness does not apply. They view politics as an area where you advance, by any means necessary, your self-interest so that you can then “be Christian” in your personal and private life. I think we’ve seen quite a bit of that in American life recently. Instead, as the tweet suggested, and as the bit of pushback I received ignored, I not only argue that there is a Christian motivation to participate in politics, but that Christians ought to participate in politics as Christians. This last part is the far more interesting bit, in my view, and what I intend to spend much of the rest of my life writing, talking and practicing—what does distinctly Christian participation in politics and public life entail?
So I am not seeking to establish new dogma here. I hold the view that there is a Christian obligation to be politically involved lightly. If there is such an obligation, it is not like the obligation to tithe, for instance. I’m not adding an eleventh commandment. But still, I want us to take seriously the responsibilities we have as citizens of this country, a country we have been placed in by the sovereign will of God, and what faithfulness in such a society might entail. I have never said that politics is the only forum for loving our neighbors. But I have said, and will continue to argue, that politics is an essential forum in which we can love our neighbors.
Have a great evening,
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Allow me to make one comment here as an addendum which is that this question is framed this way because of a tweet that I made that was a pithy way to put several points into one sentence. Out of that context, I've made an argument here as to why political participation is a general, derivative obligation for Christians in America. I should add though that, in general, I do not prefer to speak of political participation as an obligation, because I do not think it is helpful to think of the Christian life as a series of obligations. All that to say, this is what I get for tweeting :)