As the height of the 2020 presidential election season approaches, many Christians are asking important questions about our political responsibility: What policies should I support? Do I vote on party lines or on the issues most important to me? In the midst of a global pandemic and racial tension splintering our society, the stakes feel different this year. But important questions about parties and candidates can easily obscure another question at the heart of our political and spiritual lives: What story am I buying into?
Politics is all about storytelling. Picture Ronald Reagan’s iconic 1984 “Morning in America” campaign ad. Light slowly rises over shots of farmers working in the fields and a paperboy throwing the morning paper onto green lawns. A family moves into their new home, a beaming couple celebrates their wedding, and the sun rises over Capitol Hill. The economic statistics listed throughout the ad are secondary to the emotional and visual story of hope, new beginnings, and the American Dream.
In their campaigns, candidates do not merely outline policy proposals, they articulate a vision of a good life: free from certain threats, in community with the right kind of people. These marketable narratives are not content to remain at the penultimate level, shaping our political decisions while leaving our theological commitments and spiritual formation unaffected. Like all persuasive, affective stories, they will fight for ultimate status in our lives.
Most Christians separate their political and spiritual lives into two different realms. One is about the care of our souls, the inner life of the Christian, the way that spiritual disciplines shape us into the people of God. The other is about how we as individuals approach the political world as an external reality we can manipulate. While American evangelicals have a history of overidentifying their faith with a political party, separating our moral or theological obligations from our political ones has been necessary to maintain this singular identity. Any dissonance between the two identities is overcome by dividing the rules for the spiritual and political parts of our lives. The real tragedy of this way of thinking is that we believe we can run headfirst into the political world, armed with our theology, and engage as unaffected outsiders. We fail to see how political stories shape our loves and loyalties more often than they convince us intellectually.
The power of political storytelling has been empirically verified: a study published last year in the American Journal of Political Science found that most people’s political ideology was able to accurately predict their answers to moral questions, not the other way around. “We will switch our moral compass depending on how it fits with what we believe politically,” said Peter Hatemi, one of the researchers and a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University. Similarly, Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama says that most people begin with an “emotional commitment” to an ideology and then process new information with this prior commitment controlling their reasoning.
As creatures deeply formed by our communities, rituals, and affective bodily experiences, we are easily drawn into such stories. Philosopher James K. A. Smith makes the theological case in Awaiting the King that our “political and social allegiances trump religious allegiances all the time, whether in presidential primaries, under the grotesque shadow of the lynching tree, or in horrifying cases like the Rwandan genocide.” As Smith illustrates, political allegiances are powerful precisely because they are mediated to us through rituals and stories that teach us what to fear and love, how to understand our own identity, and what ultimate good to seek. The scariest thing about these stories is that they form in us desires, fears, and loyalties that we would theologically deny.
Shaped by prosperity
One such narrative is the promise of prosperity. Across the political spectrum, the promise of a politician is the same: ease, affluence, success. In the 2016 Republican primary, the candidates battled to make the most ambitious promises of prosperity, from Rubio’s commitment to “usher in a new American century,” Cruz’s promotion of the American Dream, or Kasich’s plan to “help America reclaim our power, money and influence.”
Our country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic reveals how deeply committed we are to economic prosperity at any cost. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick argued that grandparents were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the economy; opportunists forced Amazon to crack down on hand sanitizer price gouging in the early weeks of the pandemic, and every reopening step has been made with economic recovery primarily in mind. COVID-19 brought grievous economic devastation to communities and individuals, but our response has also revealed the primacy given to economic prosperity in our political decision making. It has also highlighted the flaw in prosperity logic: even a powerful country with a booming economy can be brought to its knees by forces outside its control.
The 2020 presidential debate will largely focus on the public health and economic consequences of COVID-19. This is certainly warranted. It makes sense for candidates at both the local and national levels to win voters over with promises of prosperity in the face of economic decline. But we are naïve if we think that we can ingest a regular diet of prosperity storytelling without it affecting us in larger ways.
Politicians and commentators use morally coded language to subtly reinforce the idea that wealth is a product of righteous hard work and poverty is the result of moral weakness. We can use terms like “thugs” in the “inner city” and “upstanding citizens” from “good families” to describe the perpetrators of the same crimes while communicating that one involves the moral good of wealth and the other the moral evil of poverty. The formative story about prosperity may not claim that God rewards the righteous with material success, but that’s not because it denies that the righteous will receive material success. The narrative of material wealth claims that the all-powerful market is sovereign over human lives; it promises salvation to the hardworking.
Conversely, Christians have robust theological reasons to deny that poverty is a moral failure. Scripture teaches, for example, that the wealthy often abuse their power (James 5:1-6); the poor are especially vulnerable and need advocates (Isa. 61:1); and wealth usually makes faithfulness more difficult (Mark 10:23-25). Yet a 2017 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation study found that white evangelicals were twice as likely to attribute poverty to individual failings. This is not merely evidence of incorrect theology, but evidence of the ways in which our immersion in this political story has shaped us in spiritual and moral ways.
This grand story of prosperity is not content to merely influence our political decisions. It will change the way we spend our money, the way we interpret Bible passages about wealth and poverty, the way our churches engage our communities. At the heart of the economic prosperity gospel is an aversion to weakness, to insufficiency, to the very logic of Christ’s gospel. When the prosperity gospel shapes the church, it has far more serious consequences than we imagine.
When I was a student at Liberty University during the 2016 election, many politicians and journalists spoke at our thrice-weekly convocation, including Sen. Bernie Sanders. His message centered on the common ground he thought he shared with politically conservative Christians, even if they disagreed on the solution: a concern for the poor and vulnerable. Following his talk, many students complained that “this is a job for the church, not the government.” Soon after Sanders’ visit, Christian writer Ann Voskamp spoke on Esther and the need to advocate for marginalized groups and those “outside the gate.” While Voskamp’s message advocated for the church (rather than the government) to use their privilege to serve society, it was met with similar antagonism: “What does she expect poor college students to do?” “She was dressed way too nicely to be saying stuff like that.” “The concept of ‘privilege’ is a tool of the left.”
The response from students clearly illustrated how their steady diet of political storytelling had not merely produced a commitment to a particular economic system but had shaped their theological understanding of wealth and poverty. It showed how our political involvement—the policies and politicians we support, the news we consume, the rallies or protests we attend—can also shape our theological and moral commitments.
Formed by a better story
Political participation is one way we creatively pursue the common good of God’s creation, and Christians should work to faithfully evaluate different policy proposals using both their theology and their knowledge of policymaking. However, we must also learn to identify and challenge the prevailing stories that animate each policy. In their book People of the Truth: The Power of the Worshipping Community in the Modern World, Robert Webber and Rodney Clapp call this the “diacritical” function of the church: we both criticize the errant stories we are immersed in and offer a compelling alternative.
The power of political storytelling presents both a challenge and opportunity to church leaders struggling to respond to the evangelical political crisis. Our churches are filled with people who have been strongly shaped by political stories that affect their voting and shape their theology, relationships, and spiritual formation. Yet the church has the resources—corporate worship, Scripture, historic liturgy, music, community—to instill an even greater story.
Our conversations about evangelical political engagement need to be greater than which policies we should support or who should earn our vote. Those decisions cannot be abstracted away from the larger stories that animate them: stories that form our identity and desires, instill fears and loyalties in us, and orient our work in the world toward ultimate good.
As a people formed weekly by a grand story, we should learn to recognize the competing narratives that threaten to unseat the story of the kingdom of God from its place as the controlling narrative in our lives. The church has exactly the resources it needs: the ultimate story, communicated through teaching and historic Christian practices, rehearsed in the context of the community of God.
Kaitlyn Schiess is a writer and seminary student at Dallas Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor, which releases in Sept. 2020.