Many Christians today are struggling with the question of whether, or to what extent, they should get involved in the messy world of American politics. This is a dilemma we feel most acutely whenever election season rolls around—and especially when the choices on offer appear far from ideal.
If there are disagreements within your church about the wisdom and efficacy of believers involving themselves in politics, then one source of good counsel is the AND Campaign, an organization devoted to a model of Christian civic education that aims to transcend conventional right-versus-left divisions. A new book, Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement, lays out the core themes of the group’s philosophy.
One of the book’s significant strengths is that its clarion call for civic engagement doesn’t come from a set of detached “armchair theoreticians” but instead from three authors who have distinguished themselves at the highest levels of politics. Attorney Justin Giboney, the AND Campaign’s cofounder, has served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Michael Wear, the group’s chief strategist, coordinated faith-based outreach efforts during Barack Obama’s presidency. And the third author, Chris Butler, is an activist in Chicago and senior leader of the Chicago Embassy Church Network.
Compassion (&) Conviction is packed with gems of wisdom on effective political engagement informed by Christian faith. Here are some that jumped out at me:
- Value neutrality is a myth. Everyone has a set of value commitments. A proper understanding of the separation of church and state at the institutional level does not preclude any citizen bringing his or her value commitments to bear on discussions of public policy. And everyone needs to be “given a voice” so that a range of viable positions can be heard and discussed.
- When presenting their positions on public-policy issues, Christians need to dig down deep to discover how their understanding of Christian values bears on the issue at hand, rather than just parroting the platforms of either major political party.
- In our pluralistic society, Christians should not seek to impose their positions on public-policy issues on those who do not share their faith. Rather, Christians should seek to persuade those who do not share their faith that the positions they take will promote the common good. This strategy allows for the possibility of forming effective partnerships with those who may not share all our Christian values.
- A major obstacle to all political engagement is tribalism, an “us-versus-them” mentality that holds that my own religious or political movement has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, while those on the other side have little to no insight at all.
- The tone with which we engage our opponents on public-policy issues must be characterized by faithfulness to the command of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This final point is especially near and dear to my own heart, as someone who has spent the better part of the last decade trying to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements. (You can see the fruits of this Respectful Conversation project here.) My basic premise in hosting these forums is that providing a safe and welcoming space for fellow believers to speak candidly but also respectfully about their differences of opinion is an expression of deep love.
Two additional suggestions from the book are worthy of further elaboration, since their full significance can be easily overlooked. The first is the authors’ suggestion for how to begin addressing an issue where disagreement among believers is common: “Commit to earnestly learning” the reason behind the opposing perspective, and then take care to “consider it” (emphasis mine).
Those final two words, “consider it,” are vitally important. They call for going beyond a weak form of listening that amounts to nothing more than basic politeness, where you listen to what the other person says without interruption but without any willingness to rethink or refine your own position in light of what you hear.
The second suggestion comes in the context of the book’s vision for promoting racial reconciliation within American society, though of course it applies to Christian political engagement more broadly. We must “be deliberate,” the authors write, about building personal relationships and understanding where others are coming from.
They are certainly correct that personal relationships are an ideal context for sorting through disagreements on contentious matters of politics and culture. It can’t be stressed enough, however, that such relationships need to rest on a sturdy foundation of mutual trust. Not long ago, I moderated a conversation about the Trump presidency involving four supporters and four opponents. But before I allowed the conversation to turn toward any specifics about Trump or his administration, I hosted two sessions during which the participants were encouraged to share various aspects of their life stories. This helped to forge bonds of mutual understanding and trust, which in turn fostered an environment where strong disagreements could be aired without anyone feeling personally attacked or devalued.
Establishing such bonds is an especially urgent matter when it comes to questions of sexuality and same-sex marriage. The authors of Compassion (&) Conviction call upon Christians to appeal to “the moral order God established in Scripture,” which “warns against…pursuing sexual relationships outside of marriage between one man and one woman.” To be sure, this is the traditional Christian position on marriage, one embraced by the majority of professing Christians. But the fact remains that there are Christians who sincerely believe that God will bless same-sex marriages that reflect lifelong commitment and faithfulness. Knowing this, we need to prioritize creating safe and welcoming spaces for believers to speak respectfully about these highly contentious matters. (One of my books, Respectful LGBT Conversations, walks through some relevant approaches and case studies.)
The more we can model the virtue of respectful conversation in a highly polarized culture characterized by vitriolic modes of disagreement, the more we can contribute to the kind of compelling public witness that Compassion (&) Conviction wisely puts forward.
Giboney, Wear, and Butler have written a splendid book, and their advice will surely prove valuable well beyond this fractious election season. If I have one concern, it’s the way in which the authors seemingly prioritize the goal of being true to the gospel above a larger ethic of redemptive political engagement.
Of course, all Christian activity, whether in private or in the public square, should be consistent with the gospel we proclaim. But the authors don’t always spell out what they take to be the good news of the gospel. For me, that good news includes not only the offer of forgiveness from sin through faith in Christ but also God’s plan to redeem all of creation, including our broken political structures. And if that’s correct, then seeking to exercise a redemptive influence in the political realm is simply one dimension of living out the gospel, not something distinct from it.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to our mandate for redemptive political engagement is a problem closely related to the persistent tribalism in our society: a lack of the Christian virtue of humility. And here’s where the book strikes just the right note, lifting up the ideals of compassion and conviction as Christ-enabled partners rather than natural enemies. In the end, Christians are called to exemplify a rare combination: a deep confidence in the truth of their beliefs joined to an openness to the possibility of being wrong about at least some of them. Humility, of course, won’t resolve every last disagreement, in either the church or the political realm. But it can keep the lines of respectful conversation open, which is no small matter in the present day and age.
Harold Heie was the founding director of the Center for Christian Studies (now the Center for Faith and Inquiry) at Gordon College. Since 2011, he has focused on leading the Respectful Conversation project.