Sharing the Gospel Beyond the Partisan Divide
Worse than being used by politicians, Christians diminish God by aligning Him with partisan preferences. Baptizing complex party platforms with religious vernacular makes our position synonymous with God’s position. A simple legislative proposal, for instance, can be framed in such a way that a “true Christian” could not oppose it. Whether intended or not, dragging partisan politics into the sanctuary scribbles “thus saith the Lord” across opinions. Once the association is made, those on the other side of the aisle are not merely mistaken; they are apostate.
This language creates an unbiblical political litmus test for spiritual fidelity. Being a faithful Christian means voting a certain way or holding to certain political viewpoints. If one of the faithful falls out of line on the political end, his or her faith is called into question. Some Christians speak as if denying certain policies is the equivalent of denying Christ. This also means that those who aren’t of a particular partisan pedigree don’t feel welcome in churches where Christians allow such associations. It communicates that Christianity “isn’t for them.” So Christian partisanship can actually become a hurdle to our efforts to share and spread the gospel.
Using politics as a measure of spiritual fidelity only strengthens the constituency and increases our worth as a voting bloc as many today find great value in faith’s ability to moralize arguments and win debates. This positive feedback mechanism keeps partisan faith humming along, but it can become a vortex in which a well-meaning believer can get lost.
Partisan thinking can also be irrational thinking. In the late 1980s, a majority of Democrats were convinced that inflation had risen under President Reagan, but in fact, it had fallen substantially. In 1996, most Republicans claimed that the deficit had increased under President Clinton, but in fact, it had shrunk steadily. Late in the Bush presidency, twice as many Republicans as Democrats believed the economy was performing well. As one plunges deeper into the culture wars, one loses a sense of reality and embraces a partisan perception.
When people hear Christians speaking foolishly about political realities, should we not expect them to tune us out when we speak about the gospel? If they see the irrationality of Christian partisanship, how can they expect anyone to believe other incredible claims about God and Jesus?
Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote, “Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull, instead of rowing with it.”
While politicians don’t risk much in the conflation of faith and party, the faithful place their integrity on the line. Christians like myself can’t help wondering if this is Jesus’ desire for His Body in the twenty-first century. Is the church to be reduced to a voting bloc, a constituency to be bought and sold? Are Christians to be seen as politicians in clerical collars? Such is the path of partisanship if Christians allow themselves to be led down it.
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Today’s faithful are growing intolerant of the sort of blatant partisanship that has marked the last several decades of Christian political engagement. I began sensing a change in 2007. I had been on assignment with several news outlets following Christian political engagement among those on the left and the right. I’d spoken with hundreds of Christians—pastors and activists, business leaders and teachers, college students and social entrepreneurs—whose words informed dozens of articles. What I saw and heard struck me.
Their stories were a lot like mine. Maybe they weren’t raised in a staunchly conservative Christian household, but they’d grown up believing that those on the other side of the political aisle—even the Christian ones—were their enemies. They thought faithful Jesus-followers needed to jump feetfirst into the culture wars if they wanted to build the kingdom in a country that was slipping into moral decline. Having reflected further, their thinking shifted.
A few months prior to Hillary Clinton’s conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in June 2008, I’d penned a column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution titled, “WWJD? vote for Obama, More and More Young Evangelicals Say.” My thesis: this group of Christians voted Republican in high numbers, but their young people had grown disenchanted with the culture wars and were drawn to the language of “change” and “hope” flowing from the Obama campaign. If current trends persisted, they might cross party lines for the first time in their lives.
The column was based on two thoughts. I noticed a growing partisan schism among Christians through conversations with friends and interviewees, and I’d seen several polls that substantiated this sentiment. One such poll conducted by Relevant magazine—a publication influential among young Christians—asked, “Who would Jesus vote for?” The majority of respondents were self-described conservatives, and yet their top response was “Barack Obama.”
After the article was published, many expressed disbelief, if not horror, that people who called themselves “Christian” could pull the Obama lever. They were even more incensed that I would give this group a voice in a major publication and said I’d be hearing from them come November when I was proved wrong. The election came and went, and some exit polls indicated a notable shift among young Christians.
I didn’t hear from my detractors after the election, but they didn’t seem to understand that this was not about Barack Obama or rising liberalism among young evangelical Christians. Rather, it pointed to a larger narrative about a whole generation of Christ-followers who believe the culture-war model is broken and want to liberate their faith from its partisan captivity. As they find and live out a faith of their own, they are no longer restricted to a single political party.
In 2001, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 55 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 self-identified as Republican. Six years later, in 2007, only 40 percent did. Interestingly, the defected did not simply migrate to the Democratic Party. Most of them now consider themselves “independent” or “unaffiliated.”
As pastor and bestselling author Tim Keller says, today’s Christians may be “the vanguard of some major new religious, social, and political arrangements that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete.” He says, “After they wrestle with doubts and objections to Christianity many come out on the other side with an orthodox faith that doesn’t fit the current categories of liberal Democrat or conservative Republican.”
When I lived in North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole was running for reelection to the United States Senate as a Republican. Democrat Kay Hagan opposed Dole. And though she was likeable, Hagan was still a Democrat. In a conservative state like North Carolina, party means far more than likeability. I assumed Senator Dole was a shoo-in.
Then Elizabeth Dole ran her infamous “godless ad.” The 30-second commercial attempted to set up an association between Hagan and an atheist political action group that sponsored a fundraiser where she spoke, but the ad’s claims went far beyond association.
“Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took godless money,” the commercial’s narrator said. “What does Kay Hagan promise in return?”
A female voice posing as Hagan answers the narrator’s question: “There is no God.”
Slipping in the polls, Dole decided to use the old tactic of insinuating that the Republican candidate loves Jesus and the Democratic candidate is a godless secularist who wants to chase God out of the public square. Dole’s people didn’t know that this worn-out tactic no longer resonated with conservatives or with Christians.
As it turned out, Democratic Hagan was an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, where she taught Sunday School each week and was involved in youth mission trips. Liberal she might have been, but godless she was not.
North Carolinians were appalled, and many decided to stay away from polling centers on Election Day, even numbers of staunch Republicans. With one voice, the voters of this highly Christian and conservative state repudiated the religious and political game Dole was playing. Twenty years ago, those insinuations might have worked, but not now.
Dole plummeted in the polls, North Carolinians sent her packing, and the ordeal illustrates that change is afoot.
Many are growing so ill with the blurring of faith and partisan politics that they’re abandoning the public square altogether. I can understand such exasperation, but I stress caution. Much good can be accomplished if Christians can learn to engage the political arena in a less partisan way.
Christians must be faithful not just within our churches, but throughout all spheres of life. Good Christians are good citizens, and as such, they should establish a faithful presence in the public square as in media, business, science, education, and the arts. The question isn’t, “Should Christians be involved in politics?” but rather, “How should Christians engage politics?”
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer for outlets including USA Today, Christianity Today and CNN.com. He was named one of “30 Emerging Voices” reshaping Christian leadership by Outreach Magazine. His latest book, “A Faith of Our Own,” illustrates how a new generation of believers are engaging the world with Christ-centered faith. Jonathan resides in New York City. www.jonthanmerritt.com