“Don’t tell anyone here, but my husband and I are Democrats.”
I had just gotten to Ohio to spend a month and a half working on a general election campaign, and I wanted to spend my last free night in prayer and worship. Thankfully, a church down the street from my office had a sign advertising a Bible study meeting that night. When introducing myself, I casually mentioned which candidate I was in town for, and after the meeting, while everyone mingled over coffee and cookies, a woman pulled me aside and told me her political leanings in hushed, conspiratorial tones.
For a generation or more, a lot of people like me—that is, Christians who, whether we use the term or not, fit into the broad category of “evangelical”—were largely divided on how we thought our ancient faith could speak to our modern politics. The reigning paradigm for how to understand politics was through the lens of culture war, a belief that because our political process was divided into two competing camps, Christians had to either decide which team to join or explain why we were sitting it out.
Two Groups At Odds
The most visible battalion of Christians in the culture wars was the conservative Religious Right. If our parties are coalitions of groups with tenuously related interests working together, then the Religious Right shrugged their shoulders about trade policy and corporate tax rates in exchange for the GOP’s support on issues like honoring the fact that God knits people together in their mothers’ wombs, promoting a structure for the family that honors God’s Edenic commissions, and preventing the marginalized from becoming wards of the state.
A usually quieter faction, which included my newfound friends in Ohio, were drawn to the Democratic party’s skepticism of the love of money, more dovish approach to military policy, and more merciful stances toward the poor and marginalized. Christians on the left generally tried not to think too much about the progressive movement’s increasingly troubling record on freedom of religion and conscience, disregard for historical social norms, or lack of concern for global Christian persecution.
Dividing into these factions had some distinct advantages: It provided frames of reference through which Christians could begin the daunting task of becoming politically informed. It also meant that we could look to our partisan allies as clear-cut, easy-to-follow models for how to practice civic engagement—we could just join in the kinds of rallies, protests and campaigning that were already happening on our side of the aisle. Eventually, advocacy groups like the Family Research Council (on the right) and SoJourners (on the left) emerged, giving us versions of these practices that even used explicitly Christian vocabularies.
But by viewing politics as a dualistic, zero-sum, either/or battle and then choosing sides in it, we left ourselves open to a host of excesses, mistakes and sins. Among the most notable was the sin of tribalism, of re-creating our culture’s divisions and enmities inside our churches. The couple at the Bible study in Ohio thought that the other church members would question the sincerity of their faith if their status as Democrats was discovered. And I can’t blame them, because for my entire (and brief) Christian life up to that point, I had seen my brothers and sisters consider the boundaries between their partisan camps to be uncrossable. Two years earlier, when I was still in college and just starting to try to figure out what my new faith meant for the way I vote, I was told by one circle of Christians that real Christians actually vote for Democrats, and then just days later told by another group that Christians can only honestly support Republicans.
Brash college students and small churches in the Midwest aren’t the only members of the faith prone to assuming that people who are like them in one way should probably be like them in other ways: Christian author Eric Metaxas was part of the final panel at the end of a day-long event for evangelical leaders held here in DC two years ago. The program included several powerful bi-partisan conversations—including one between Republican Frank Wolf and Democrat Tony Hall and another between SoJourners’ Jim Wallis and the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks. Yet in the final panel on the agenda, Metaxas casually discussed “our duty as conservatives” with the room full of faith leaders.
The church, which is supposed to be scattered everywhere as ambassadors to this world but comfortable nowhere as citizens of another, had pretty successfully conformed to the cultural divisions of U.S. politics. There was no man or woman, Jew or Greek, free or slave in Christ Jesus, but there was Republican and Democrat.
Two Odd Groups Out
Besides the Christian Right and the Christian Left, there were two other church battalions in the culture wars, noncombatants who I will call conscientious objectors and cynics.
The conscientious objectors were always dissatisfied with both options and held out hope for a morally purer one. Mark Noll, author of several books that I love, also demonstrated the conscientious objectors’ approach in his contribution to One Electorate Under God? In the essay, he articulates seven convictions about the public square he has arrived at through his faith and says that he won’t support a candidate for president whose platform doesn’t address those seven issues in a manner he agrees with. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable approach, but these kinds of political ultimatums are unrealistic and, at their heart, egotistical. In holding out for some kind of ultimate good (which our faith tells us will only actually come to pass when Christ returns), we abstain from contributing to any kind of (actually achievable) proximate good. This approach also encourages the Christian citizen to view himself or herself alone as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, despite the fact that our faith tells us we only see and understand the world through a glass dimly.
And lastly there were the cynics, who thought the whole civic system was morally corrupting, or that the political and governmental dimensions of life were somehow beyond the scope of God’s love. At a class I led last month at a well-known evangelical church in New York City, one participant objected (in question form) to the idea of Christians voting for anyone at all. This summer’s infamous photo of Jerry Falwell Jr. giving the thumbs up to Donald Trump next to a framed issue of Playboy and the transparently selective morality of Falwell’s response to his critics (Asking, “Who are you to decide who is a sinner and who is not?” after building a career on identifying sinners) seemed to be a moment of crisis for many of my Facebook friends, teetering on the edge of dejection and cynicism. “If this is what happens to Christians who get involved in public life, then count me out!”
But conscientious objection and cynical withdrawal both mean living at odds with a fundamental aspect of God’s character as revealed in Christ. The Christian faith is a missionary faith. Adherents are implicated in God’s mission of making his light and goodness felt in every corner of the world. We’re not called to stay in our enclaves, hoping that the people who would most relish Jesus’ freedom and comfort find their way to us. From Abraham through Moses to the apostles, the story of our faith is the story of people being charged by God to go into unexpected places and demonstrate the difference he makes in their lives.
Toward a Scattered, Incoherent Unity
I don’t think the culture war framework is going to be useful for much longer. Too many evangelicals are now dissatisfied with the moral compromises that have always been inherent in it. Even for many devoted political conservatives, the potential of a pro-life justice on the Supreme Court is no longer worth supporting a presidential nominee who enthusiastically indulges in the love of money, boasts about adultery and sexual assault, and seems to delight in wielding power in abusive, un-Christ-like ways. Meanwhile, many Christians who usually support the Democratic party see their party ignore global Christian persecution and are concerned that their nominee openly advocated that voters hold their religious beliefs downstream from her party’s political program, belying a troublingly casual commitment to pluralism and religious freedom.
For all the frustration, anxiety and confusion that it has provoked, this protracted election season has at least (and at last) offered America’s evangelicals an opportunity to imagine a new approach to bringing their faith to bear on modern civic concerns. What could that look like? The most fundamental change we need to make is in the way we conceive of the church’s mission in the public square. Instead of doing battle in the political arena or passing judgment against it, we should do for politics what we try to do everywhere else in our lives: bear witness to it.
Our commitment to partisan triumphalism made it difficult for us to properly contend with the fact that our political system’s moral anthropology was not as nuanced as our faith’s. Christianity generally claims that people are good but fallen, simultaneously reflecting and distorting God’s image. But our partisan process is prone to something akin to Manichaeism, treating one side as pure good and the other as pure ill. Too often, in our efforts to win, we turned blind eyes to our allies’ ills while willfully discounting the ways in which our opponents might be good. A richer approach to the public square would not ask, “How can we gather as many Christians as possible into a single partisan camp?” Instead, it might ask, “How can the people of God demonstrate together how the fact of the cross and the empty tomb could change people—the kinds of people who are likely to be Democrat, or Republican, or independent, or apathetic?”
Our churches can be places where likely Democrats and likely Republicans (and, yes, likely independents) learn to disagree, perhaps strenuously, with each other, while still celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. They can be places where we learn to affirm the image of God in our opponents and challenge our allies clearly and coherently when they distort it. And we can learn to do all of these things humbly, tenaciously and lovingly. Whatever the left and the right look like after this election, we will still have Christians scattered across the political spectrum. The most important witnesses we can offer to the country around us is to make sure that they are more at peace with one another than they are with their partisan allies.
Rick Barry is co-founder and executive director of Center for Christian Civics, a DC-based non-profit equipping Christians to engage the public square in ways that are productive, collaborative and rooted in their faith.