Public Square

How Can Christians Bring Something Greater to Politics?

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Disturbing. Disgraceful. Discouraging.

Amid accusations and fuming vitriol from all political sides, we hear these three words used to describe the current landscape of US politics and public sentiment.

In the wake of our turmoil, there is a real danger that good, God-fearing people will pull back from politics in the months and years to come. Even tomorrow on Election Day, some may be tempted to let disillusionment and disengagement take over. In his book God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life, Gene Edward Veith urges us:

The Christian’s involvement with and responsibility to the culture in which God has placed him is part of his calling. Human societies also require governments, formal laws, and governing authorities. Filling these offices of earthly authority is indeed a worthy vocation for the Christian…

Now more than ever, we need people who genuinely show up, pray up, speak up, and step up. But how might we engage in a way that brings something greater to the desperately disruptive equation?

With today’s political rancor, so many people feel dissed. But there’s a much bigger brand of “dis” to blame. Leaders of every possible political affiliation are guilty of it. In reality, we are all outrageously guilty of this particular ugly one.

It’s called dis-integration.

And it’s especially tricky. Here’s what happens when people say, “My faith is important, but I don’t need to mix that too much with political work. I can and should keep my church life and spirituality separate from my political views and actions.” Many people today bring this attitude: “It’s not spiritual; it’s just political.” Such outlook is a kissing cousin to “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”

Can Integration Really Happen?

Overcoming dis-integration is not solely a political issue. It runs much deeper. At the core, it is about reclaiming the grace of serving fellow humans, both nearby and round the globe. Its roots are found in Genesis 2:15, where God purposed for humans to work in his Garden. In other places in scripture, this ancient word for work is also translated as serve. God’s unfolding biblical story reveals a handful of characters who served in government in amazingly integrated, service-oriented ways. The likes of Joseph, Esther, and Daniel demonstrate how God’s people can be vibrantly involved in the work of politics and public service.

Current debate buzzes around the issue of what it looks like for a nation and its leaders to be truly great and flourishing. Quite often, this means some version of sassy rhetoric and savvy power bases. Such a prescriptive understanding—both greatness of individual leaders and a collective people—is painfully flawed.

Faith truly can integrate with one’s politics. Jesus supplied a deeply different understanding of influence. He taught his disciples that true greatness means learning to humbly serve others (Mark 9:33-35) based on holistic, integrated love (Matt. 22:34-40). Perhaps this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky platitude, a hearkening back to Mayberry or Walton’s Mountain. But King Jesus said it. Greatness is born of humble service. Will we believe him and work like that’s true in our own everyday vocations—including political and governmental responsibilities?

In his book The Integrated Life, Ken Eldred urges: “Even leaders, and I’d say especially leaders, are to operate with a servant’s heart.” Christians are to live all of life—not simply a slice of life— fully informed and integrated with growing faith. That means leaders humbly serve others.

Greater Guiding Questions

Standing in this season’s stormy winds of dismay, I try to envision what true greatness and flourishing might look like. There would be a fuller integration of our faith in the public sphere, an integration that impacts not just our nation but the globe. Such integration must involve once again the twin concepts of character and service.

Character matters (Prov. 8:15; 22:1). Good character means being trustworthy, full of integrity. Good character matters because telling the truth matters (Prov. 12:19; Eph. 4:14-15). Leaders must be willing to tell the truth, first to themselves about themselves. Truth be told, we are not always good leaders, both at our core and in our actions.

In her book Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells of a political campaign early in Abraham Lincoln’s career. In his guiding platform paper, Lincoln self-declared:

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.

Note Lincoln’s great ambition. He realized that in order to be truly esteemed by fellow men, he needed to render himself worthy of that esteem. There was no sense of entitlement. In Lincoln’s leadership framework, self-rendering was essential to authentic, service-oriented ambition. He was relentless in self-examination, constantly working on personal change—even altering his viewpoints and platforms when necessary. Then he avidly pursued active, hands-on service to others.

I wonder what would happen if more of us asked this two-part, formative question every day when we wake up:

  • What sort of person should I be—in light of King Jesus?
  • What actions should I take in order to actually bless the people I serve, to intentionally create greater flourishing?

I long for such questions to open the way to truer, kinder, stronger flourishing. O that such greatness would be born of good character and genuine service on behalf of others.

Editor’s note: What principles should character godly Christian leaders? Check out Art Lindsley’s booklet, Be Transformed: Essential Principles for Personal and Public Life, available in English and Spanish.  

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