Talking politics in church

When 4-year-old Abigail Evans burst into tears for no apparent reason, her mother asked what was making her so sad.  “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney,” Abigail wailed between sniffles.  Mamma Evans didn’t switch off NPR, but she assured her daughter that the election would soon be over.  And so it will.  But the intense polarization generated by a particularly nasty election cycle is sure to linger on.

For strongly liberal or conservative churches, culture war politics isn’t a huge problem. Virtually every member of the congregation votes for the same party.  But churches in the moderate middle have a hard time negotiating the minefield of American politics. Preachers know that the slightest hint of political partisanship could alienate a significant swath of the congregation.  Sunday school etiquette places political references off limits.  Sunday school is supposed to be therapeutic, not traumatic.  So we make nice and stick to safe topics.

But this polite silence carries a steep price tag.  If we can’t talk about politics in church our religious conversation takes on an artificial, antiseptic quality. This may explain why most of the growth in American Christianity is presently taking place at the extreme margins of the American religious continuum where the political implications of Christian discipleship can be spelled out explicitly.  A religion confined to “the spiritual realm” will ultimately devolve into pious blather.  You can’t get specific about Christianity without getting political.

The obvious solution is to decide which political party is the most “biblical” or “Christian” and encourage the faithful to vote accordingly.  But it isn’t that simple.  Liberal and conservative politics are rooted in fundamentally different understandings of economics and social morality.  Conservatives prefer small government because they believe that tax increases kill jobs.  Liberals are convinced that a healthy dose of governmental regulation encourages equal opportunity while saving capitalism from its self-destructive impulses.  Fifty years after the youngest of us is dead and gone, this debate will rage on.  Neither side is going to “win.”

Nor can we expect to see a winner in the social issues fight.  Because liberals are primarily concerned about the peaceful coexistence of diverse communities, they are hesitant to give special privileges to one religion, culture, ethnic group, class or moral philosophy.  Because conservatives fear social collapse, they defend traditional morality.  Culture warriors choose sides and line up for battle.  Folks in the moderate middle feel the force of both arguments and cobble together a rough compromise. But when my resolution doesn’t look like yours, we need to talk even if the conversation promises to be lengthy, inconclusive and uncomfortable.

After having the same fight 100 times, husbands and wives sometimes agree to disagree.  When you know exactly what your mate will say next, why bother giving them their cue?  Similarly, when you have listened to the same inconclusive Sunday school discussion of a hot button issue for forty years, you see little point in repeating the exercise.

But husbands and wives need a good dust-up to clear the air.  Both sides know exactly how the fight will play out, but they have it anyway.  But the fight-so-we-can-make-up strategy only works if marriage partners agree that, no matter what, they are in this thing for life.  Christians can safely disagree only when they have achieved this level of commitment.

Before we talk about the delicate interplay between faith and politics, we must re-commit to the fundamental tenet of the Christian faith.  Consider these texts:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4: 7,8)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13: 13)

Love isn’t one virtue among others; love is the virtue.  Keeping this in mind won’t settle the faith-politics question, nor will it keep us from arriving at sharply different conclusions.  When husbands and wives fight it ain’t always pretty; and the same goes for the household of faith.  So long as we’re fighting over the implications of following a loving Christ, our disagreements can only make us stronger.

 

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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