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Never Let Politics Drive You Away From Jesus
Don't let a just servant become a tyrannical master
Note: This post is adapted from my chapter in TGC’s book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church, featuring essays from Trevin Wax, Brett McCracken, Karen Swallow Prior, and others.
In the unfinished basement of our church on a Wednesday night, my friend Robby turned to me and asked, “Do you think it’s sinful to not vote for George W. Bush?” It was 2004, and Robbie and I were as conscious as everyone else of the U.S. election. To someone else it may have seemed a strange question, but not to me, and not to anyone else present that evening. The idea that one candidate could represent the Christian option was, if not something Robby and I had fully contemplated, certainly something we assumed—probably because it was something our parents and church teachers assumed before us.
Not every Christian is distressed by being raised to hold certain beliefs about faith and politics, then rethinking those beliefs later. But some experience this tension as if they need to deconstruct everything they’ve known. Sometimes politics devours the theological, leaving a particularly thick wreckage behind.
Just Servant, Tyrannical Master
Politics is a just servant but a tyrannical master.
Biblically speaking, politics is necessary ultimately because human beings are created in God’s image. Human flourishing requires the ability and willingness of God’s image-bearers to live in joyful, loving harmony with him and with the created order. Being created in God’s image means being created under a divine mandate to take holy dominion over the universe.
Politics is the how of holy dominion.
But we need to understand something important. Politics—the just and righteous exercising of power over human institutions—is only a how. It’s not a why. According to biblical Christianity, politics can only ever be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Before anything political was, God is.
American Christians especially need to be reminded that politics can be a righteous servant, but a tyrannical and blasphemous master. Many churches in the United States maintain a more sustainable sense of unity over their favorite political parties and candidates than the basic doctrines of their Christian faith. In too many churches, members can’t articulate even simple points of the gospel, but a Facebook post about an election can draw lines and tear people apart.
Inside many of these churches, the how of politics has dethroned the why of Christianity. I’ve seen white Christians accuse a black Christian, who shares fundamental doctrinal commitments of Christianity, of being a “liberal” simply because he speaks of experiencing police injustice. He didn’t say anything unbiblical—on the contrary, the Bible assumes that fallen humans will wield power unjustly. He simply failed to toe an earthly partisan line.
This is what it looks like when God’s people allow politics to master them spiritually, emotionally, and theologically. But politics is just like any other idol: it doesn’t deliver what it promises. That’s why many of the most politically conscious people you know are also the most anxious, the most fearful, the most volatile. The idol of politics promises a feeling of control over this intimidating world. In reality, though, it amplifies fear by keeping our eyes off the Sovereign ruler of history.
Idolatry on Both Sides
It’s not hard for me to see how politics can become idolatry when I’m looking at others. I can spot a speck of tribalism in the eyes of Those Kinds of Christians from a mile away. But the same idolatry can and does take root in the hearts of those who think they are rejecting it.
Deconstructing your Christian faith out of frustration with your church or your parents’ political commitments is itself a form of this idolatry. Just as holding up the Republican Party platform as a test of Christian fellowship is wrong, using politics as a reason to abandon biblical commitments is likewise wrong. It’s the same error, just in a different direction.
My friend Jesse (not his real name) was, like me, raised in a very conservative homeschooling environment that taught evangelical theology alongside strongly right-wing politics. In time, Jesse realized that much of what he was taught about America’s two political parties wasn’t always true. Because of this, he started questioning not only his parents’ politics but also their belief in things like the inerrancy of Scripture, substitutionary atonement, and the exclusivity of Christ.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched with fascination as Jesse has become confident in his new, progressive theology and politics. A while back his Facebook posts were more questioning, simply trying to “start a conversation” and defuse the swaggering confidence of his fundamentalist family members. Today his posts about both politics and theology are much bolder. He believes substitutionary atonement is a morally outrageous doctrine. He has no interest in hearing from people who oppress women by holding to male-only eldership. With a sharp wit he puts down anybody who could be so morally corrupt as to support certain candidates.
Jesse may have thrown off the conservative politics he was raised to believe his faith demanded. But from where I’m sitting, Jesse is still ensnared in political idolatry. His politics still dictate his faith—just in the opposite direction from his parents.
For younger Christians in particular, it’s easy to say the Bible transcends our politics when what we really mean is the Bible transcends your politics. It’s easy to feel like we’re better off simply because we swing, like a pendulum, in the opposite direction from the mistakes of those who formed us. That’s human nature. The trouble with pendulums is that all they do is move back and forth.
Wisdom looks different.
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Winning vs. Wisdom
Wisdom isn’t merely running in the opposite direction of those we dislike. In a polarized society that’s allergic to quiet, careful thinking, it’s easy to think that wisdom needs to feel like winning. This is the air Westerners breathe. Politicians, activists, and even many pastors carefully shape their rhetoric to make everything their opponents do look as bad as possible.
When we imbibe this kind of thinking day after day—as we’ll inevitably do if we spend hours every week consuming news and social media—we’re being formed into the kind of people C. S. Lewis warned about in his essay “The Inner Ring.”
In this essay, Lewis observes that one of the most intense temptations is to believe and behave merely for the sake of being approved in our various groups and cliques. Addressing a group of young university students, Lewis warns that the willingness to sacrifice principles and morality for membership isn’t something that will stop if they can only once find the right inner ring to join. If they give in to it, they will make continual, increasingly unthinkable compromises, because there will always be one more inner circle to desire. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
When it comes to Christians and politics, far too often the question that rules the day is not, “Is this, according to what God has said in Scripture, true, good, and beautiful?” Instead, it is, “What are My Kind of People saying about this?” or even worse, “What are the Wrong Kind of People saying about this (because the opposite must be true)?”
This is what happens when right-wing Christians make peace with cruelty toward immigrant children because it “owns the libs.” This is what happens when left-wing Christians fail to speak up for the unborn because doing so would put them alongside people they dislike. When it’s winning that matters and not wisdom, people outsource their convictions to keep their tribe.
On the other hand, if you let the Bible shape your conscience, you don’t have to keep track of where your views will sort you. The Bible that insists on the personhood of the unborn and the immorality of murder is the same Bible that says God looks carefully at how a society treats its orphans, widows, and poor. The Bible that commands the people of God to show compassion to the vulnerable and kindness to the stranger is the same Bible that promises divine wrath for those who reject our Creator’s design for sexuality and gender. The Bible that teaches salvation is only in Jesus Christ also teaches that all of us, saved or lost, are made in his image.
This is the wisdom that the gospel offers. If you embrace this wisdom, you probably won’t “win” much, because you won’t easily map onto our polarized public square. Biblical wisdom will at times get you called a liberal by those on the right or a fundamentalist by those on the left: somewhat like how Jesus was savagely rejected and maligned by stiff, moralistic religious leaders, but also rejected by common folk who didn’t like what he said about their need for him (John 8:31–59).
While throwing off what you were told in church youth group may feel like achieving a kind of independence, in reality you’re probably just swinging like a pendulum toward another authority source: new friends, new professors, new social-media accounts, or new books or articles. The question is not, “Will you shape yourself or will you allow someone to shape you?” The question is, “Will you be shaped by an all-powerful, all-merciful Creator who loves justice and righteousness and mercy? Or will you be shaped by the endless parade of fads and tribes?”
To truly have a faith that transcends (not ignores) politics means embracing an authentically Christ-shaped approach.
Humility is so rare in political discourse because, for many people, political belief and belonging constitute the core of their identity. Disagreement becomes equivalent to attack, and exposure to beliefs that challenge us is no longer appreciated as something that can strengthen us.
In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt present compelling data that show younger Americans in particular are allergic to contrary ideas and people. The deep problems of polarization and demonization in contemporary culture owe first and foremost to how today’s emerging adults were taught, as children, to think of themselves. If children are taught to think of themselves as “fragile,” if they’re taught to always trust what their feelings tell them, and if they’re taught that the world is a simple battle between good and bad people, then they will grow up unable to see those who disagree with them as anything but dangers.
The decrepit state of much of our public square owes, Haidt and Lukianoff conclude, to how we think of ourselves.
They’re right. Yet their analysis doesn’t go far enough. The truth is that without the transcendent truth claims of the Bible, we’re all left to ourselves in forming our identities, and these identities are extremely fragile—since we can’t control the world. The only way out of the fragility that gives rise to hatred and avoidance of others is to believe that we (and the universe) don’t finally belong to us, but to God.
When you’re confident in the deepest parts of your soul that the sovereign Jesus Christ is reigning over the world, and that he has died and risen to keep you safe in his presence forever, fear and loathing toward those who disagree with you loses its power. You can try to persuade others with gentleness instead of seeing them as cosmic bad guys who are going to wreck everything unless they’re stopped.
Before you deconstruct your Christian faith, consider whether any identity you can craft for yourself out of political beliefs can actually make you both courageous and compassionate. Jesus can make you like that, because he is like that.
A faith that goes beyond politics is centered on worship. You may ask, “What does worship have to do with politics?” The answer is: everything.
An evangelical church in the Bible Belt, compromising what the Bible says about justice in order to keep in step with its preferred political tribe? That’s a worship issue. A 20-something college student who rejects Jesus’s claims because she can’t imagine condemning people who want to live out their free sexual preferences and identities? That’s a worship issue. What happens when politics and faith collide reveals something fundamental about our worship.
In the absence of worshiping God as he’s revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the human heart reaches for idols. What makes idols especially deceptive is the fact that they often come in the shape of good and necessary things. Politics is necessary and good. But when you forget that God controls the universe, and that he orchestrates all of it toward final justice and goodness, you will see those who disagree with your politics as not just wrong, but evil. Make no mistake: there are indeed evil policies. But putting your trust in a righteous political order usually manifests in an inability to tell the difference between that which is debatable and that which is unquestionable. Idols don’t encourage discernment; they insist on worship.
From this angle, you can see how walking away from the person, work, and promises of Jesus Christ—because he doesn’t fit your political preferences—is utter madness. Abandoning Christ won’t make your politics more tolerant and sophisticated. What it will do, in all likelihood, is surrender you to the whims of a secular outrage and cancel culture that is ruthless and unforgiving. It’ll leave you without a moral foundation. Worst of all, it’ll rob you of the only hope steady enough to survive deep suffering, unmet expectations, shattered dreams, powerful enemies, and broken trust. Only Christ is big enough to assure you of ultimate hope, because only Christ is big enough to one day undo everything broken about this world.
Dustbin of History
No political party has a trademark on the truth claims of Jesus Christ. If being a Christian means anything at all, it means believing that Jesus is truly, unchangeably in authority over all human activities and institutions. His death and resurrection demanded responses long before the United States of America existed. And his death and resurrection will demand a response long after you, I, and what we know as the world today has been forgotten and swept into the dustbin of history.
Instead of looking at other Christians and deciding how to respond to Jesus, look at Jesus. Look at his wisdom, his compassion, his excellence. Look at his patience and righteousness and kingship. Look at his extravagant promises of grace and his mighty guarantee of a final justice. Then after you look at him, look at the world around you: left, right, and center. Look at the brokenness, the hypocrisy, the inconsistency of the City of Man. Look at what life is like when sinful people try to rule the world apart from their Creator.
If you look at Jesus and then the world, sincerely wanting to see, then you will see. And you won’t be the same.