Will it ever be possible to elect a president acceptable to most Christians? Perhaps, but the personal qualities and policy positions many Christians look for in a candidate are apparently not what gets votes nationwide this election season. When the president doesn’t agree with your policy goals, it’s almost impossible to get any sort of legislative agenda passed into law. What, then, can Christians hope to achieve politically?
Tempting as it may be, we cannot abandon politics entirely, no matter how intractable, debased, or corrupt it becomes. All cultural spheres belong to God, and it is our duty as Christians to represent him in all of them.
However, while we should not give up on effecting change through conventional political means, we may have to broaden how we engage politically if we want to increase our chances of making a positive impact. One way we might consider doing this is through evangelical advocacy, as described in the book Advocating for Justice (hereafter referred to as Justice).
Political Advocacy as Evangelical Witness
The authors of Justice define evangelical advocacy as:
Intentional acts of witness by the body of Christ that hold people and institutions accountable for creating, implementing, and sustaining just and good policies and practices geared toward the flourishing of society.
This may sound like plain old lobbying in prettier language, but there is a key distinction between lobbying and evangelical advocacy. In a word: witness.
Common sense tells us that political engagement is only worthwhile if it yields concrete political results. But we as Christians have good reason to engage politically whether we get concrete results or not, because political advocacy as evangelical witness is an end in itself:
This transformational advocacy approach aims not only or even primarily to achieve the political results we seek—for those results are in God’s hands—but to prayerfully and faithfully carry out God’s call, whatever the issue, in such a way that people come to know the abundant love of God and the saving power of Jesus Christ.
On this understanding, we still desire policy outcomes and work to realize them. We do not necessarily count it as failure if the desired results never materialize, for in this vision of evangelical advocacy we are also concerned for the spiritual welfare of our political opponents. We do not reduce them to the status of mere impediments. Any interactions we have with politicians or government officials are opportunities to persuade and to witness, to “model Christ’s love and to try to make disciples”:
Advocacy is about witness to the state, but most notably toward the statesperson—a real person who works within a real structure…. This means we build relationships with people in political offices, not just for the purposes of changing policies or influencing legal protocols, but because we are linked in our humanity with them.
While it is possible and desirable to cultivate such relationships with political figures at the national level, evangelical advocacy may be even more appropriate at local levels of government. Church congregations—Christ’s representatives on earth—are uniquely suited to be, indeed are called to be, witnesses to and advocates for the local community. From Justice:
Churches exist in actual locations, where their contextuality, proximity, and relational resources foster the kind of fruitfulness we envision for transformational advocacy.
Because churches exist in particular places, they are well positioned to know who in the community is suffering, how, why, and what might be done about it. On occasions when a political response to a problem is called for, they can readily petition municipal government for appropriate action, as elected representatives and officials within local government are more accessible than their national counterparts.
An instructive example of the kind of evangelical advocacy described here is the International Justice Mission (IJM). IJM works to liberate people in other countries from modern day slavery by forming relationships with those in power who can aid in reforming justice systems and punishing oppressors.
Although they have helped millions in multiple countries, it is a virtual certainty that IJM has also met with failure on many occasions. I say this not to denigrate them, but to accentuate how their efforts are never guaranteed to yield any fruit, yet they carry on nonetheless. The people in power they talk with and witness to may refuse to cooperate for justice, but the witness still matters as an expression of the love of Christ. So too should we persevere in witnessing to those who hold political power in America, even if we ultimately fail to persuade them to support good policies.
Evangelical advocacy is still advocacy, but it is consciously evangelical as well. This means that, in the best spirit of evangelism, we treat our political opponents as the image-bearers of God they are, even as we attempt to persuade them to support what is truly good not just for Christians but for all Americans. In that same spirit, we do not despair even if our best entreaties are rejected.
Rethinking Political Advocacy
This is not meant to be a comprehensive prescription for how we should engage politically, but an impetus to further discussion on how we can remain fruitfully present as our culture grows inhospitable toward Christianity. We cannot yet say what will be beneficial or feasible. Come what may, though, God has called us to be lights in the darkness (Matt. 5:14) and to exercise our creative rule in this world, so we can be confident that our work remains before us even if the precise nature of that work changes.