Politics and the Gospel

In the minds of many “politics” is a dirty word, in part because in the modern era we’ve reduced “politics” to “involvement in the government”. Originally it meant much more. The Greek word “polis” is “city”, so broadly defined “politics” is involvement, not just in the government, but in the community. Early Christians were known for their clear-thinking, but they were known for their practical involvement in their culture as well, out-thinking and out-loving those who opposed them. We can learn a lot from them about what the gospel means politically.

After worship on September 13, Steve Britt and I (and perhaps a few others) will begin a conversation on this topic that will, I hope, move us toward a better understanding of the relationship between politics and the gospel. Let me be clear: our goal in it isn’t just to define the right stance on certain issues. It’s to better understand what our Lord calls us to in our community and how we should respond. Will it be a lively conversation? Oh, yes. Will it teach us how to do politics better?  I hope and pray so. 

At times it’s hard for me to remember just how much the attitude of believers towards politics has changed since I was a boy. I grew up within a “two worlds” mentality. It’s not that the good folks at First Church Prattville considered politics wrong—indeed, officer holders were members of my church—but one’s faith wasn’t supposed to have much to do with it. On one hand there was the sacred world, i.e., church, and on the other the secular, i.e., everything else. Aside from certain moral principles that applied in both realms, there was a different set of ground rules in each world. It was an approach that hurt both politics and the church, isolating and making them poorer.

Things changed after my college years. The Moral Majority first raised it head in 1976 as a response to the Roe vs. Wade decision. In some ways it was an improvement over the old two worlds approach. Is faith supposed to influence politics? Sure. The question was “how”? And the answer often came in the form of a checklist on a number of different issues: abortion, education (especially support for private schools), welfare, support of the military (an emotional issue in the post-Vietnam era) and free market capitalism, and in opposition to communism. The checklist often varied from individual to individual and from region to region, but there was a substantial overlap in most of the Christian lists. To be sure the “liberals” “we” hated had their checklists, too, often the anti-thesis of ours, which helped feed the political polarization which is the hallmark of American politics these days.

Have checklists drawn attention to some important issues? Sure. Have they inspired real political involvement? Unfortunately, no. Real political involvement goes beyond having the right list.

In 1960 Ruby Bridges became the first black student at a previously all white school in New Orleans. She was six years old. Each day she was escorted to class by a band of federal marshals through a gauntlet of adults screaming their anger and hate at her. She became the subject of a study by Harvard psychologist Robert Coles, who got to know her mother,too. Mrs. Bridges was illiterate, but she understood politics well, I think.

In her opinion there are four kinds of people: “There’s a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what’s good and what’s not good.” Others “always worry about whether they’re doing right or doing wrong.” Still others “just put their lives on the line for what’s right, and they may not be the ones who talk a lot or argue a lot or worry a lot; they just do a lot.”

There’s nothing wrong with talking, to be sure. We Presbyterians are pretty good at it. But politics and the gospel should be about putting our lives on the line. Let’s make this our common prayer as we prepare for lively interaction in the coming weeks.