How should Christians interact with politics? And what political framework should we adopt? These questions are important to consider at this time in which our politics are so divisive.
Dr. Bruce Ashford is one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to Christianity and the public square. He’s the co-author of One Nation Under God, and he’s been published at Fox News and The Gospel Coalition. He also teaches a new free class, Christianity, Politics and Public Life.
He recently sat down with Dougald McLaurin to talk about this important topic at Southeastern Seminary. Watch their discussion above, or read a few relevant excerpts below (edited for clarity).
Why should Christians be involved in political discourse?
The past two years have been something like a mixture of a war, a carnival and a Hollywood movie. It’s been crazy. And you see a couple types of extremes and maybe some middle ground.
One of the extremes is sort of throwing up your hands and walking away in disgust, and you could understand why. Another would be kind of an overheated political activism that almost invests it with sort of a messianic hopes. That is particularly dangerous; it’s idolatry. And it also tends to fail you so quickly that you end up in the first category again, deflated and ready to quit. We’re aiming for something different than that, which is appropriate Christian involvement in a democratic republic.
I think we have to be involved. The Bible talks about religion — true religion — by locating it in the human heart. At least 800 times, the Bible relates religion to the heart. But when it relates religion to the heart, it’s not privatizing religion. So to say that something is heartfelt in biblical terms is to say that it’s located in the innermost recesses of who we are, affecting us in the depths of our being. And anytime something affects us in the depths of our being, it is going to affect us in the totality of who we are.
So if our religion truly is found in worship of the God of Jesus Christ, that’s going to radiate outward into our political engagement and our public life. If our true religion really is sex or money or power or any other created thing that we’ve absolutized and given ultimacy, then that is what will radiate outward into our public life.
So the way we behave in public life — the type of words we say, our demeanor and our posture — gives evidence of which God rules in the throne of hearts (or which cocktail of false gods). If you see a person who fairly consistently becomes unhinged in the public square and is willing to set aside their Christian belief and operate with a demeanor they would never operate with in another environment, then you know for many of them (and for many of us) there is a cocktail of idols vying for the heart where Jesus should reign supremely.
Whatever your religion is will necessarily affect your public life. It will shape the way you do whatever political engagement you do, and if it doesn’t, then it’s not really your religion. So, for me it’s not a question of whether we should or not, it’s just the fact that it does. We should recognize that, and seek consciously for it to be Christ that shapes our engagement, rather than some false God.
The best way you can nourish your political identity
The most important political gathering we’re involved in, hands down, occurs once a week, and it’s on Sunday mornings. When the church gathers, that is a political assembly in the biblical sense of the word political. Where we declare that our polis — our primary city, our primary sense of citizenship — is God’s kingdom, rather than an earthly kingdom. So we gather together, we declare that Jesus is Lord. We do it through the preached word, we do it through the Lord’s Supper. Everything we do in a service should remind us that Jesus is Lord — and by implication, that Caesar is not. That whatever false God that is vying for our acceptance is not Lord.
So what it does is it nourishes our political identity, in the biblical sense of the word political. It reminds us that we are primarily ambassadors of the King, who will return one day and install a one-world government, and a one-party system, with him on the throne and us ruling with and under him. We declare that Jesus is Lord. And that should characterize our political involvement.
People should get the distinct sense that our ultimate allegiance is to the Lord, but the overflow of that is a good and healthy allegiance to our own nation. A type of allegiance that not only confirms but critiques. And if you deal with any earthly kingdom, you’ll always be affirming and critiquing. The gospel and a Christian framework of thought will always affirm [some things], but we’ll also always be critiquing.
The importance of the biblical narrative
So how do we do that? I think the concept of narrative is really helpful. There are different ways of showing the Bible’s coherence. There’s a systematic coherence to the Bible. There’s also a narrative coherence, which I think is the most interesting coherence and the most helpful. And [with] that narrative, the biblical narrative, we can call the true story of the whole world.
It is that narrative that truly and really positions world events and explains them, and explains world actors. It is not the MSNBC narrative. It is not the Fox News narrative. It is not the CNN narrative. It is not the BruceAshford.net narrative. None of those narratives is the biblical narrative, so we show that that narrative is the overarching narrative, and the narratives put forth by the media outlets are bit players within that overarching narrative.
Idol excavation digs
Another thing we can do that shows our primary allegiance to the Lord is we can survey the political landscape for idols. There is literal and metaphorical idolatry. You have literal idols, where people make something by hands and then call it a god and worship it. But then you have metaphorical idols which are things that are part of God’s good created world, things that are good, that we absolutize and give our ultimate commitment to. Those things become counterfeit gods or idols. And we bow and give allegiance to them.
There are a couple of ways you can go on an idol excavation trip if you want to across our political landscape. One would be to select perennial human idols — sexual pleasure, wealth, power, comfort, success — and then look at how those idols operate and shape political parties, politicians and political ideas.
Another way of doing is that to take modern political ideologies and then trace their programs back and find their root idols. I think that all of the modern political ideologies have an impulse toward a certain idol. Conservatism, progressivism, nationalism, socialism, libertarianism, all the isms. Even democracy can become democratism, when we confuse or conflate the voice of the people with the voice of God. Vox populi, vox dei.
Another way we can make clear that we’re Christians is by reframing issues in light of Christ’s work on our behalf and in light of a Christian framework. A Christian should necessarily view marriage and sex differently than other people, right? We know that it’s a picture of Christ and his church. Nobody else by general revelation would know that. So we have at least that.
That should reframe the way we view sex. Let me mention how a Christian would view sex differently than a conservative who’s not a Christian or a progressive who’s not a Christian. A conservative who’s not a Christian might because of cultural heritage be offended by, for example, gay sexual life patterns. And he will possibly be kind about it, and possible not. He may possibly ridicule and demean. A progressive is going to be more likely in our nation at this point to embrace it in toto and say, “This is great; it’s just like anything else.”
A Christian is going to come along and do neither. We’re going to affirm healthy biblical teaching on sexuality. That’s where we might be similar to a conservative who’s not a Christian. But we’re also going to try to honor the other person and give them the human dignity they deserve, and at the same time hopefully have the humility to recognize that even though we’re saying, “Listen, your sexual life patterns are not healthy and God says we should not live in that manner, we have to recognize that we also have life patterns that are sinful and unhealthy.” So there’s a humility there.
Same thing [is true] on power. A Christian who is cruciform or cross-centered in their political engagement is going to use whatever they power they have — social, political or cultural power — as a citizen or an officeholder to decenter ourselves and empower other people. We’re going to have an impulse to do that.