This is among the shortest articles I’ve ever written, but don’t let its brevity undermine its gravity.
What is the one thing I’d say to American citizens about their involvement in politics and public life?
I mean, there are so many potential answers to that question.
I could say that it doesn’t behoove us to get caught up in the circumambient imbecility of our day, the tribalizing, polarizing, mocking, insulting, insincere, cynical political engagement modeled by radio hosts, TV pundits, and political candidates. Instead, we should cut our own wake, modeling the same combination of truth and grace exhibited by our Lord Jesus Christ.
I could say that we should beware allowing the Bible’s narrative of the world to be replaced by the narrative spun by our preferred media outlet, political party, or thought leader. We should beware the religious effects of a liturgy in which we watch, listen to, or read hours and hours of news and opinion shows each day, thus being shaped by their narratives far more than by the Bible’s.
I could urge us to recognize that modern political ideologies tend to be idolatrous, elevating some aspect of God’s creation—material equality, social progress, an ethnic group, cultural heritage, economic efficiency, personal autonomy—to the level of a deity. And, once elevated, that aspect of God’s creation becomes a cudgel that beats down other good aspects of his creation.
I could say that we need to make clear that our primary allegiance is to Christ the King, rather than to any particular political ideology, party, or leader. Occupants to Caesar’s throne come and go, but Jesus remains forever.
I could encourage us to work for the common good, rather than merely for the good of our own tribe. That’s what it means to be a good-willed citizen of a democratic republic.
I could say that we should pray for God to strengthen us for the days ahead because there will be enormous pressure for us to capitulate, for us to compromise the truths of historical and biblical Christianity. And that when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he showed them the holes in his hands and side. And that if Jesus—the cosmic King of the universe—could take a crucifixion on our behalf, we should manage to stomach the social (and economic and legal) pressure that will come our way because of Christian conviction.
I could encourage us to try to “reframe” the day’s political issues in light of biblical teaching, thus making Christianity interesting again. It stands to reason that if secular political parties frame an issue in one particular way, Christian citizens would frame it differently. We might take a similar line of reasoning but come to a different conclusion. Alternately, we might come to the same or similar conclusions but because of different motivations or for different reasons.
I could say that we must beware of short-term political activism. Such activism is not inherently wrong. Often, we should participate in it. But if we are not careful, we will sacrifice our long-term witness on the altar of short-term political gain. If we are not careful, we will buy into a secular utilitarian ethic, justifying the means in light of the ends.
I could say that we should take the broad view. By that, I mean that we should be careful not to put all of our eggs in the basket of politics. If we wish to influence our nation, we should also work to renew and reform the other spheres of culture—art and science, scholarship and education, business and entrepreneurship, sports and competition, marriage and family. Et, as they say, cetera.
Which brings me to the one thing I’d say to American citizens about their involvement in politics and public life. It’s not that these other things are inherently less important. In fact, all of them are important.
But for today, if you’re asking me for the one thing I’d say, I’d say this:
In our efforts to bring about cultural and political reform, we must not forget about the need for spiritual revival. That’s right. Revival.
During my earliest years as a Christian, my experience of the evangelical tradition is that we emphasized the need for revival. And we did so to the near exclusion for cultural reform. I’m not sure I ever heard a sermon about the need to reform our cultural institutions. And that bothered me. In fact, that’s why I developed such an interest in public theology, in cultural reform. Cultural reform is good and necessary.
But now what I’m worried about is that we will emphasize the need for cultural reform to the near exclusion of our need for revival. If we manage to score short-term political victories—and thus short-term reform of legal institutions, educational laws, and business practices—but do not experience revival, our cultural reform will be for naught.
Let’s remember that the gospel is both a pearl and a leaven. It is a leaven, able to reform the whole of culture. When we embrace Christ’s gospel in the depths of our hearts, our allegiance to him naturally radiates outward into politics and public life, shaping and reforming cultural and political institutions.
But it is first and foremost a pearl of great price, a treasure for which we forsake everything we have (Mt 13:45-46). So let’s not forget that the gospel cannot reform the whole of culture until it has been embraced in the depths of our hearts.
Let’s not sacrifice spiritual revival on the altar of cultural reform.