Christian politicians

David Helm, executive editor of the Christian Century offers some interesting thoughts on the issue of the appropriate involvement of the faithful in politics on the Christian Century Theolog blog:

I have been hearing some significant voices on the right that are disillusioned about political engagement.

For example, at a Yale Divinity School conference on religion and politics in October, David Kuo, former aide in the Bush White House, talked about the need for Christians to “fast from politics” for a few years. Conservative Christians helped Republicans get control of Congress and the White House, he said, but they didn’t accomplish that much for the country and, with their focus on partisan politics, they ended up diluting or distorting their own spiritual life.

Also speaking was Gregory Boyd, a dynamic pastor in Minnesota, who doubts that anything good comes from aligning oneself with Caesar (his words to describe Christians engaging in politics). He spoke eloquently about how the church is called to embody Christ’s self-sacrificing love in the world, not to take up the levers of power.

Skepticism about politics is always healthy. But it strikes me that Kuo’s and Boyd’s comments reflect a broad, unhelpful tendency in American Christianity to oscillate between two poles: either a fervent engagement in politics for the sake of the gospel and the world, or an equally fervent detachment for the sake of the purity of the gospel and the health of the church. Isn’t there something between the two poles?

It might help the discussion of religion and politics if we thought not about the two poles of political engagement and detachment but about politics as a particular kind of vocation to which Christians are called in different ways depending on their gifts and their position in the church and society.

I’d be happy to stipulate, with Boyd, that the church as church is not called to be Caesar or even Caesar’s adviser. We don’t want bishops, pastors or church councils issuing statements on tax laws or free trade agreements or on which version of the SCHIP bill should be passed. Churches and church leaders have their particular vocation of proclamation, worship, prayer and sacramental ministry. Except in emergency situations, the church—here I mean the church as an official body—leaves the details of what public justice means to those who are called to the work of politics.

Meanwhile, however, individual Christians have their particular vocations. In a democracy, all people have the vocation of citizen and so are in some degree called to the work of politics. Beyond that, a certain number of individual Christians are called to a more specific vocation: to study, analyze or participate in the day-to-day workings of politics. They make arguments and pay attention to data. They look for affinities between the gospel and political philosophies and programs. They listen to what constituents say and arguments other people make. Their work is fallible, limited, pervaded by sin, always subject to revision—but so are lots of vocations.

Unless one takes a truly separatist view of the Christian life and wants to preclude anybody with political influence from being a member of the church, then one has to grant that some Christians have the specific vocation of working out the details of seeking justice in political life. This is not the only task of the Christian life, nor is it the primary task of the church. But it is a genuine vocation for Christians, one just as worthy as farming or schoolteaching. If we are clear about the distinct vocations to which Christians are called, there is no reason for Christians to fast from politics or apologize for their involvement in it.

Read it here. What do you think? Is politics part of our vocation? Or is it time for the faithful to fast from politics?

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