by Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo
G. K. Chesterton once noted, “Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments, and all nations have been ashamed of them.” What is true of “all nations” is often particularly true for Christians. When we stop to consider government and politics, our hearts are not strangely warmed but rather filled with apprehension and angst. Politics may be necessary in today’s world, but many of us are inclined to think of it as a necessary evil.
Not all Christians, however, are so down on politics. In fact, over the past few decades, many evangelicals have remained markedly active in the political realm even while effectively retreating from other aspects of public culture—most notably the arts, entertainment, and science. We evangelicals have never stopped wanting to change our country, but we’ve too often voluntarily limited ourselves to one tool: the hammer of political activism. And when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.
Thus some Christians think of politics as an insufferable necessity; others conceive of politics as nigh unto salvation. Ironically, these two perspectives tend to feed off each other. Those who imbue politics with unrealistic and salvific expectations are most liable to conclude—even if it takes years to get there—that politics is not worth it after all and must be abandoned at all costs. “Politics as salvation” leads to political frustration, which leads to political withdrawal. For many well-intentioned believers, what begins as an arena of endless hope often ends as an arena of darkness and despair.
The lives of nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dodson show this unfortunate progression. In 1999, after thirty years of conservative political activism with the Moral Majority, they counseled evangelicals to give up activism entirely. Politics, they said, was too corrupt an arena for Christians to use to enact social change. Best to stick to the work of saving souls.
We understand the frustration of men like Thomas and Dodson. Politics has been a rocky shoal on which countless hopes have been shipwrecked. But still we maintain in no uncertain terms: withdrawal is not an option.
If we are not to withdraw from politics, is it possible to avoid the opposite error of making politics our sole tool for societal change? How can we navigate between the dual extremes of political withdrawal and political salvation? Can we really engage in politics responsibly, confidently, graciously—in a word, Christianly?
These are the questions that drive this little book. And they are questions of special significance at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as the United States is quickly becoming a post-Christian country. For the first time in the history of our country, Christians are often considered morally inferior or even evil because they embrace historic Christian teaching. This situation has evoked responses of both activism and withdrawal. And it has created an atmosphere of intense emotion. Some Christians are fearful. Others are angry. Most are confused, wanting to rightly relate their Christianity to politics and public life but not knowing how.
That is the purpose of this book. We hope to share a perspective on politics that tempers the expectations of those with inflated hopes, empowers those with deflated hopes, and equips every Christian to apply Christ’s love in the muddied arena of politics. Politics is not an evil arena to be avoided. Neither is it our only avenue for impacting society. The reality is much more complex and, oddly enough, much more promising.
In the first chapter we show that the Bible’s “big story” provides the context within which Christians should think about politics and public life. Only by considering the four plot movements of Scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—can we begin to understand the role of politics today. In chapter 2 we identify four competing answers to the question of Christianity and politics, digging a bit deeper to show that each answer actually rests on a unique understanding of grace. In the third chapter we show how Christianity is able to affect every sphere of life without creating a theocracy. Chapter 4 picks up the question of church and state specifically, asking—and answering—how our view of cultural engagement will affect our view of church-government relations.
In the fifth chapter we talk about the specific challenges of our cultural context. Contemporary Americans live in a country that is decreasingly Christian. While many Christians feel this as a threat, we argue that it is time for us to learn afresh how to witness to our society as a minority group, to minister from the margins. We must once again become comfortable as resident aliens in our own nation while still pursuing the welfare of our society. In the sixth chapter we provide practical advice on how to leverage public-square interactions as witness for Christ. Our political interaction is an avenue for proclaiming aspects of the gospel, for showing the world a different hope, and for displaying Christian character and discernment.
The next seven chapters address current topics in American politics—abortion, euthanasia, immigration, same-sex marriage, the economy, the environment, race relations, immigration, and just war. In these chapters we show how our view of Christianity and politics (addressed in chapters 1–6) applies in real life. Each chapter focuses on a Christian who has proven to be an exemplary public witness on the topic at hand.
In the final chapter we conclude by highlighting one last exemplary Christian, a hero from the past—Augustine of Hippo. Augustine lived during the decline of the Roman Empire and stood as a champion for Christianity when society had begun to decry the faith. We will summarize his famous book, City of God, which was written to address Rome’s political ills, and apply its lessons to our own—surprisingly similar—American context.
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