When Tennesseans go to vote this Election Day, they’ll be asked whether they want to amend an unusual section of their state constitution: a ban on ministers of religion seeking a seat in the state legislature. The clause, whose curious history has been reported by CT, hasn’t been enforced since the 1970s, when the Supreme Court ruled it an unacceptable constraint on religious rights. It’s still on the books, but pastors in Tennessee already can and do run for state house.
This amendment hits the question of Christian political engagement squarely on the nose. It’s a well-worn topic—evangelicals’ voting records, partisan alignment, policy positions, generational trends, and denominational differences are amply documented in the media.
Meanwhile, Christians are busily preaching sermons and writing books to call one another to faithful political engagement. The message varies widely depending on who’s doing the preaching or writing: One man’s faithfulness is another’s capitulation to a godless culture of death.
But while we talk endlessly about faith and politics, I suspect few of us have an explicit and practical theory of political engagement. That is, we have a general inclination or sense of obligation to participate in politics in a way that involves our faith, but exactly what does that entail? I’d suggest there are four questions we should be asking here, two of which tend to get short shrift.
1. What does Scripture say about X?
This question is straightforward and the one we’re most used to asking (illustrated by a recent CT piece: “Is Student Loan Forgiveness Biblical?”). Of course, Scripture doesn’t speak directly to most modern policy questions, so the answers aren’t always clear-cut. That doesn’t mean we should stop asking this question—far from it.
But it does mean we could often use more humility in our answers, especially when we’re speaking of policies involving institutions or technologies that simply did not exist in the biblical era. That a policy may be compatible with Scripture does not make it a biblical mandate. Answering this question well should entail diligently studying the biblical record, ideally in conversation with Christians of varying perspectives (whether in real life or by reading books) to ensure we do more than return to familiar and unchallenging texts.
2. Are my speech and manner Christlike?
This too is an old question but newly controversial. It ought to go without saying that the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12) still apply in politics—that we’re called to be meek, merciful peacemakers even while we vote, campaign, and tweet.
Yet one of the pernicious effects of the last half decade was the normalization of shamelessness, mockery, and belligerence as desirable political traits among candidates and pundits Christians support.
We might not be ginning up animosity toward other people ourselves, but as commentator David French has argued, “a person doesn’t necessarily wash his hands of sin by delegating that sin to another person. Or, to put things more plainly, one doesn't comply with the command to ‘love your enemies’ by hiring someone to hate them for you.”
Beyond checking our own behavior in political engagement, Christians should consider if we’ve outsourced our political hatred to the public figures we support. Are we pretending our hands are clean while backing politicians and pundits who lie, bully, and fight dirty on our behalf?
3. Is my political enthusiasm the result—or cause—of distorted love, fear, anger, or worship?
This third question is one I see asked more and more, thanks to renewed attention, in books like James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love and Kaitlyn Schiess’ The Liturgy of Politics, to Augustine’s contention that our lives are oriented by our affections.
We gravitate toward what we love, and we’re similarly shaped by our habits of worship, fear, and anger. Distortions of our affections and reactions—worshiping or fearing the wrong things—will leave us distorted people. And politics, perhaps second only to advertising, is designed to activate and claim these orienting affections, with distorting effects. That distortion is easy to see in our political opponents, but we’re less inclined to notice the same or worse distortion in ourselves (Matt. 7:3–6).
A simple and reliable test: If we ever find ourselves arguing that politics is a special case—a unique situation in which Christians can exchange gentleness for cunning, confidence in God’s care for anxiety over the future, or “excellent or praiseworthy” things for whatever it takes to win (Luke 12:27–28; Phil. 4:4–9)—then our political enthusiasm may be the result or cause of a distorted heart orientation.
4. What are the limits of Christian political action?
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was recently criticized for his claim that Christians are “unfaithful” if they “do not vote, or they vote wrongly,” which was widely interpreted to equate faithfulness with voting a straight Republican ticket. It’s worthwhile to consider more foundational questions than partisan alignment.
Should Christians vote? Must we? Should we campaign or lobby? Are we unfaithful if we don’t sign every petition whose demands we support? May we seek public office? Does it depend on the office or the other candidates running? May we serve in the military or police force or as prison guards? Are all roles in government and politics permissible for Christians or only some, or none? Should limits be different for clergy and other leaders in the church?
Christians have handled these questions in many different ways, and I don’t expect every Christian to land where I do: not at a total eschewal of political engagement but with a deep Anabaptist skepticism of Christians’ wielding the sword of the state.
But I think it’s fair to say those more specific questions about the practical limits of Christian political engagement deserve to be seriously raised and carefully answered. We won’t have a mature theory of faithful political engagement if we plunge into politics without so much as considering the challenge posed by traditions like Anabaptism or after quickly dismissing it as quietism or naiveté.
Perhaps we have “the right to do anything” in politics and governance, “but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). Or perhaps, just as in other spheres, there are roles and activities here that in definition or in current practice conflict with following Christ. After all, two of the three temptations in the wilderness asked Jesus to seize or display power (Luke 4:5–12), a revealing move on the Devil’s part.
If we’re going to engage in politics, we must start by asking these questions.