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Communicating the Gospel in a Partisan World

March 9th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“My kingdom is not of this world.” As he approaches the crux of his earthly life, our Savior simultaneously qualifies Pilate’s authority while submitting himself to it. It is an astonishing moment of political quietism, which is possible only because Christ’s kingdom has its origins in the heavens rather than here on earth. Were His kingdom of this world, he goes on to say, his “servants would have been fighting,” resisting both the religious and political authorities.

Moreover, the church answers Christ’s quietism with her own: as Oliver O’Donovan points out, in the face of the world’s claim to loyalty John urges an alertness and patience that are animated by our worship of the one true representative of God (Rv. 16:15; 14:12). The church must remain alert, O’Donovan contends, so that we do not lose ourselves to the false demands of the world.

Moreover, she must bear the inevitable conflict with the world with patience, as in doing so she “proves and displays the strength” of her common object of love, Jesus Christ. These apparently quietist moments in the Christian political witness are, to be sure, the manifestation of the victory of the Kingdom. Christ’s triumph over the principalities and powers happens by ironically making them the instruments of their own demise: by yielding himself to Pilate, and so being put to death, Christ establishes the conditions both for the emergence of his people, the church, and for the renewal of the political community that put him to death.

The worship of Jesus Christ is a visible sign of Christ’s triumphal reign over the nations of the world. Yet such worship’s most fundamental form is endurance beneath conditions of injustice. Our willingness to accept our martyrdom with gladness is the basic condition of an evangelical political witness: rejoicing when we are persecuted for the kingdom’s sake is the mark of our faithful embodiment of the kingdom of God (Mt. 5:11).

Christ’s submission to the governing authorities, though, is not the final word about the form our political witness must take. In Letter 138, Augustine considers whether Christ’s charge to ‘turn the other cheek’ and welcome persecution are conducive to proper citizenship. While his answers vary, he ultimately argues that the purpose of such exhortations is to recenter our affections away from their attachments to this world, rather than provide definitive guidance for political action.

These “precepts refer to a disposition of the heart,” he writes, “rather than to a deed.” The patience and benevolence that mark the Christian political witness are “held in the hidden places of the soul,” and only “openly performed when it seems that they will be profitable for those for whom we must bear good will.”

What follows is a litany of Scriptural examples of resistance to religious and political powers. Christ not only fails to turn the other cheek when he is struck, but rebukes the one who does it: “If I have spoken evil,” he says, “give evidence of the evil; but if I have spoken well, why do you hit me?” (Jn. 18:23) Paul does likewise, albeit in even more bold fashion: he tells the high priest that God will strike him, before realizing what he’d done and adopting a more tactful course (Acts 23:3-5). The willingness to be martyred is not a choice for martyrdom.

But neither will it permit us to resist martyrdom at any cost. The proper ordering of our political affections turns on our preparation, on our disposition to share in Christ’s sufferings by cheerfully accepting our own. The church’s moment of alienation from political life cannot devolve into a permanent suspicion of politics, a denigration of the legitimacy of government or other institutions that God has appointed for the just ordering of society. At most, it may require a temporary renunciation for the sake of turning a society’s attention beyond the justice that politics is responsible to secure. The faith of the Christian community in her Lord is not a negation of politics, but its salvation: it is for the sake of politics that the church looks beyond it, to her Savior.

Such considerations are especially timely for us Americans as we approach yet another national election. Political action in a deliberative democracy like our own poses a unique threat to our affections. While many Christians will (rightly) emphasize our civic responsibilities to vote, such a narrow focus eclipses the structural and systemic problems our contemporary political apparatus poses to the Christian witness.

Voter turnout drives victories, and enthusiasm drives turnout—which means that our political parties must not merely persuade their core constituency, but whip them into a frenzy sufficiently feverish to animate the laborious work of phone-banking, knocking on doors, and the like. The requirements of a mass politics means that reflective, judicious, or carefully considered reasons are often swept away by hysteria and agitation—and the settled opinions which animate them. In order to consolidate support, political parties must squelch dissent and disagreement, as those who trouble others with their questions potentially throttle their enthusiasm to vote.

The problem of chastening our political affections is especially acute within our increasingly polarized political environment. There is increasing evidence that we are increasingly more likely to change our religion than our politics, when the two conflict. We are increasingly likely to see the other party’s members as hypocritical and selfish, such that we are less likely to associate with those across party lines. The zero-sum nature of most of our political contests and the loss of trust across our society means that we have entered a cycle in which our political preferences reinforce our religious commitments, and vice versa.

Our churches have not been immune from such partisan sorting: as the parties have radicalized on issues that are central to an evangelical political witness, like sexual politics or abortion, the lines between religious and political conservatism have become increasingly blurred. Such an environment makes the temptation to sacralize our political positions even more acute than it might be otherwise, and intensifies the fervor with which we attack dissenters on our own side. No wonder, then, that evangelicals who are committed to Republican politics have vociferously excoriated those who have sought to enact their evangelical convictions in politics through means besides supporting the Trump Presidency.

However evangelicals vote in 2020, we face a more basic and fundamental crisis than who we might elect to the White House: there is no room in a democratic republic for tepid support, at least not as long as a constituency wants to retain influence. Reluctant endorsement of our leaders is rarely sufficient to elect them in an extremely divided electorate.

It may be that, within this environment, the conditions for political activism are incommensurate with the prioritization of the Gospel within our churches and communities. We cannot dodge the fundamental moral questions at stake with complaints of ‘partisanship’: there is a right and wrong answer on abortion, and each party are doing all they can to dismiss anyone who disagrees with their party lines. It is reasonable to answer such a fundamental moral question by lending support to one side or the other.

Even so, we should consider the costs of doing so. When our identity as Christians is blurred together with that of our party, our pursuit of justice for all citizens through political action risks being reduced to protecting our own communities and interests—the very opposite, we should note, of a willingness to be martyred.

Such an environment causes us to lose sight of the commonality of the goods to which politics must ultimately be ordered, and tempts us to give up on the responsibility to persuade our fellow citizens—our neighbors, not our enemies—of the truth of our convictions. In that way, a partisanized environment of our politics becomes a self-reinforcing system: it throttles our political imaginations, rendering us incapable of seeing how things might be different than they are at the present.

What is to be done? The question is one to which evangelicals should give long and sustained attention—if only through opportunities to reflect on our witness. We evangelicals are activists at heart: we are keen to hurry through the seemingly fruitless task of reflection on our history, Scripture, and our place in the world toward the judgment about what we should do. And in this case, that question looms larger by the day: we are beginning to deliberate about a choice which we cannot escape, whether to vote or not. There is a decision to be made, which means the work of reflection must eventually come to an end.

While we evangelicals have long embraced a political pedagogy ordered toward encouraging us to fulfill our civic responsibilities by voting, it may be time to embrace the political asceticism of not voting. As O’Donovan has proposed, there are “many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”

In a similar fashion, there may be times when the most pointed democratic action imaginable is simply to decline to participate. The responsibilities of caring for our neighbor doubtlessly include the use of government to secure justice for them—but they also include the responsibility of reminding the principalities and powers that the kingdom to which we owe our fealty is “not of this world.”

Such a stance will be intolerable to those whose vision can extend no further than realities of injustice that seize us: abstention is betrayal, for it is (we are told) to be nothing more than sanctioning the evils the other side endorses. Yet abstention also untethers our affections from the machinations of our political parties, freeing us from the need to rejoice at the triumph of our candidate (and in our neighbor’s loss). The freedom of our hearts from such political winds, though, can only be responsible if we concurrently turn our energy toward an alternate form of politics, one which has the worship of God at its center and which seeks to enact Christ’s kingdom within the local communities we live within.

Voting for a representative is an act of deferral: we ask another to make decisions for us, decisions that affect us but over which we have no direct control. We can only give up such indirect influence if we are willing to seek to embody the moral vision that we might hope is embodied in a candidate within arenas where we have direct authority and power. The political ascesis of not voting must be accompanied by the renewal of our commitment to the our neighbor’s good. Only through such means will the social trust that is disappearing begin to be repaired.

The communication of the Gospel in a partisan world cannot be neutral toward grave moral questions like abortion or the treatment of immigrants at our borders: we must take some stand. But the manner of our political witness need not be reduced to a vote, in which our reasons for action are folded into a representative who may very well embody norms and make choices that would rightly repulse us. There are more forms of evangelical politics than are dreamt of in most of our philosophies—and for the sake of evangelicalism, and the world, we would do well to begin imagining them.

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Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.