Theologians tackle how faith shapes public life
Any Canadian with a social media account and a handful of opinionated friends may remember 2016 as the year when political discourse sank to a whole new low. Yet 2017 was only days old when our country’s public broadcaster offered a not-so-subtle reminder that this reality is not just an American one.
A national morning radio program presented a discussion about the upcoming Conservative Party leadership election, featuring a team of political strategists. A few minutes in, one of the strategists disclosed, "The two most important emotions in politics are hate and fear. And if you can harness those emotions … it can take you a long way."
Hate and fear are powerful, and recognizing that party strategists may deliberately try to manipulate them explains a great deal about contemporary politics. But feelings shaped by politicians, feelings that come and go, should not be the primary guide to any thinking Christian’s political engagement.
The New Testament clearly teaches the only thing we are to hate is evil, and the only thing we need fear is God Himself. It also teaches us that we should allow God to transform us by renewing our minds.
So how do we co-operate to allow God to direct our political choices and activities?
One of the best resources is theology – the critical study of ideas that have to do with God, and with what God has to do with our world. Faith Today senior writer Patricia Paddey spoke with four theologians and learned sound theology isn’t just important for pastors and professors. It’s important for every Christian’s every concern – including political ones. Following are highlights from those conversations.
PROFESSOR OF HISTORICAL THEOLOGY AT WYCLIFFE COLLEGE (UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO)
Author of A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Baylor University Press, 2012)
How can theology inform our political thinking and engagement?
As Christians we are called, wherever we are – whether the public or private sphere – to be informed and to live according to what we know to be God’s purposes for human creation. Theology helps us understand – through its articulation of what Scripture tells us and how it applies to our lives – what God’s purposes are for us as human beings. That’s fundamental. Theology can inform anything we do.
How do we decide which goals and values should shape our political decisions?
We live in a society in which [Christians] are a minority. The question is, What kind of a society is going to allow us to hold our values, privately and publicly, with the least amount of pushback? Are Christians going to be permitted to order their lives according to their faith? Who is going to let us do that?
The primary power Christians have in the political sphere is that of witness. The way we live and order our lives witnesses to the transcendent God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our ability to do this will make a difference in the larger public sphere, so our capacity to witness is important.
The early Church changed the political order of the world that way. How Christians treated one another, the whole reorganizing of life together among rich and poor, widows, slaves – these were social realities, driven by deep gospel commitments and understandings, and people noticed it. That’s where conversion came. So our freedom is for the sake of our witness, not for the sake of our safety. Christians should have no interest in their safety.
One of the key political acts of the Christian should be aimed at the integrity of the Church’s life, not at the larger society. We really should be concerned about whether the Church itself has a coherent life, so that over time and across geography there is such a thing as a Christian point of view. We obviously can’t have any effect on larger society if we ourselves as Christians can’t agree with one another, teach one another, are not consistent in our actions, and so on.
To me, that is the greatest political challenge of Christians today – an integrated, healthy, unified Christian Church. We don’t have that, so it’s not surprising that we have little purchase in larger society.
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES AT CRANDALL UNIVERSITY
Author of Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 2014)
In Need to Know, you write that Christians are called by our Lord to think Christianly. What does it mean to think Christianly about politics?
To think Christianly and to act Christianly in politics is to try to do so in the company of Jesus. We should be walking with Jesus as disciples, listening to His voice, trying very hard to please Him, and to achieve His purposes in the world. It’s also to think the way Jesus has taught us to think, particularly through the Bible, as well as through the wisdom of the Church. That means to prize the Bible as God’s Word written. Then also to take full advantage of the other gifts God has given us – in scholarship, experience, art, and in the traditions we have in our ethnic and family units, as well as in our particular churches – and above all, the Holy Spirit.
Two people who self-identify as Christians can think Christianly and come up with very different ideas about politics. What are we to make of that?
Some people are just smarter than other people in different zones. While each of us alone is responsible for our political and religious decisions, there is a genuine place for expertise, and we often fail to realize that.
Christians can also disagree because politics is complicated, and where it is, there is no more scandal in two Christians disagreeing than there would be with two generals who are each loyal to the same side, but who have different understandings of strategy or logistics. They both want the same outcome, but they legitimately differ on how that outcome should be achieved.
Finally, in any given situation, it may be that what the Lord wants to accomplish is sufficiently complex that no one posture or policy will be sufficient to effect it.
What are some of the questions we ought to ask ourselves when considering how to cast a vote?
One of the key questions is, What is necessary in the short term? Often we’re encouraged to think very long term in politics, but we also need to look at the immediate situation. Where is our country or province or municipality now? Given that we’ll have another election in the relatively near future, a vote needs to be seen in terms of which way we need to nudge our political process over the next few years. That’s the philosophy behind my own voting pattern. I have looked at where my particular riding (and region and country) needs to be helped, and particularly where the poor and the powerless need help, and asked, "Who is likely to bring a correction?"
"I’ve found it helpful to try to listen to anyone I can find who seems to be thinking well. I can learn from people representing a broad range of viewpoints, from the left to the right, who are sincere and intelligent, even if I disagree with their outlook." –John Stackhouse
Stackhouse recommends reading the writings of a range of online resources including the following ones representing Christian views:
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF SYSTEMATIC AND HISTORICAL THEOLOGY AT MCMASTER DIVINITY COLLEGE
Author of A Pentecostal Political Theology for American Renewal: Spirit of the Kingdoms, Citizens of the Cities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
Why should Christians explore theology for help engaging in the political realm?
Theology helps us understand what it means to live in relationship with God and other people. Too many Christians see their lives purely from a church or ecclesial paradigm. Spiritual and church activities define their life with God and their Christian identity. They regard their life in this world with ambivalence at best and chagrin at worst. But this way of thinking alienates people from the life for which God created them.
What should be the correct approach for political engagement by Christians today?
Christians can sometimes be more concerned with advancing one of our moral causes than we are with preserving and maintaining the system of civil, political and social freedoms in our society. Our society, although influenced by a Christian culture, was explicitly established on secular political, social and civil principles and values. Those are good things.
When Christians think about influencing society, they need to think about preserving democracy as a fundamental concern. Western-style democracy is not perfect. But would we want to change it for any other system we see in the world today?
As Christians, we want to see society reflect Christian values [so it is] more likely to nurture human beings and to manifest the divine image. But that doesn’t mean we should advocate a theocracy.
Take public education. In 21st-century society, it’s essential for people to have the opportunity to thrive, to embody the divine image. As Christians, we ought to be concerned about the livelihood of people, and therefore also about the public education system, which needs to produce people who can be productive members of society. We can’t claim to love our neigh-bours as ourselves if we are unconcerned with the plight of people who are created in the divine image.
If you could offer one single guiding principle for Christian political engagement, what would it be?
Politics is essential for the Christian life. It’s not extraneous. That doesn’t mean we all need to become political activists and 24-hour news junkies. But we do need to be people who are concerned about homelessness, about the ability of others to thrive, about the environment, about a lot of things to make ours a better world.
We should see politics as one of the dimensions of the life for which God created us.
PROFESSOR OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY AND FOUNDING DIRECTOR AT THE YALE CENTER FOR FAITH & CULTURE
Author of A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Baker, 2013) and co-author of Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely and Vote With Integrity (Baker, 2016)
In A Public Faith, you observe that members of all religious groups want their convictions and practices to shape public life. Is this an appropriate desire for Christians?
It’s more than just appropriate, it’s our responsibility, with the moral vision we have, to shape the culture and the larger social world in which we find ourselves. The critical question is how that shaping should take place.
For instance, what is the role of coercion in that shaping? To what extent ought one to advocate for supporting a particular vision in the broader legal provisions in society? Those would be central kinds of issues. The best way to proceed is to transform sensibilities. But sometimes the law is our master.
You believe that coercive faith is malfunctioning faith. How can we safeguard against coercive faith in our private and public lives?
We need to emphasize freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, the separation of church and state, and to not make the state an instrument of the realization of Christian vision. When that happens, coercion is often the result.
Christian faith was born as a marginal community and it functions best in the position of marginality, which defines itself by absence of power to impose its vision. It’s much more significant to appeal to the heart … than to impose certain moral convictions upon the unwilling.
What should be the boundaries for a Christian’s political activism?
There are situations in which it’s futile to be active, situations in which it involves too great a compromise. I advocate an ad hoc position. In some areas, we can be fully involved; in others, partially. The judgments as to when and how we get involved cannot be made in advance of a situation. They’re informed by the entirety of the moral sensibilities that the Christian faith [proclaims].
Final thoughts for Canadian Christians on how theology ought to inform our political engagement?
I would say to be courageous and not think that Christ is irrelevant to politics. Expressing and giving voice to the radical character of Christ’s vision is what we’re called to do.
Act in hope, and hold before others our own better selves, so that somehow we can come together to create and to enjoy a world that is worthy to be called our home.
Patricia Paddey of Mississauga, Ont., is a senior writer at Faith Today.
ADDITIONAL BOOKS TO HELP YOU THINK THEOLOGICALLY ABOUT POLITICS
Moral Man, Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013 ).
The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
The Spiritual City: Theology, Spirituality, and the Urban by Philip Sheldrake (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press, 2010).