Christian Politics, with Justin Holcomb

In a recent post at the Resurgence by Justin Holcomb we find yet another example that a robust theology is not falling for political partisanship. The questions are good ones:

How should Christians think about and interact with the political realm? Should Christians see any value in politics?

Holcomb meanders to Augustine and Chuck Colson and NT Wright then Augustine and Calvin and then also James Davison Hunter. Conservative evangelicalism, in the 80s, fell for partisan politics and aligned itself with the Republicans. The principal spokespersons were Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, James Kennedy and eventually James Dobson, who eclipsed them all in influence. Among evangelicals no one represents this trend than Wayne Grudem. But I’m seeing less partisanship among the young and restless Reformed, though perhaps I’m mistaken. (Is that accurate? That is, “less partisanship”?)

But Holcomb gets this right — too much commitment and too much withdrawal result in failed discipleship.

Neither an overly pessimistic nor an overly optimistic view of politics serves Christians well. Those who act as though politics are the primary way God has determined to bring about the kingdom of God will inevitably downplay the significance of the church as God’s agent through which the Spirit works in the world. On the other hand, those who avoid all political or cultural involvement as inherently evil will miss or downplay the social and cultural ramifications of the gospel of Jesus.

That is, identification with a political party is no more Christian than de-politicizing the gospel.

So I propose a Third Way: the Christian’s primary “politic” is a church that follows Jesus as King, that votes its conscience not on the basis of a political ideology but on the basis of the gospel, and that strives to influence society through the church. That is, it’s politic is not the eschatological hope of the federal government but in the one who is King over all.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://nateduffy.blogspot.com Nathan Duffy

    And what if someone fully affirms your Third Way, and just happens to find that their conscience, on the foundation of the gospel, consistently — perhaps even without fail — aligns with one particular political party? Then the effective, practical difference between this approach, for such persons, and Falwell-ian, Dobson-ian partisanship is literally non-existent. In fact, what you’ve see as that ‘old way’ may have been your Third Way all along, for many people, and for all you know.

  • scotmcknight

    Nathan, yes, perhaps but it depends on what drives the consistent vote. Here’s my contention: if everything lines up with one party there’s more going on than Christian convictions. The issue for folks like Hunter and others is that many can’t distinguish political party from Christian convictions.

  • http://Whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    I love that you’re practising what you’re preaching on non-partisanship here, Scot – quoting the Resurgence guys and endorsing what they say when you agree with them. Nice.

  • http://nateduffy.blogspot.com Nathan Duffy

    “if everything lines up with one party there’s more going on than Christian convictions.” – There is no reason this is inherently, necessarily true, and if you contend it is then the burden to demonstrate that it is. Given that such demonstration is well nigh impossible (at least, of all the times I’ve seen it attempted, no one has come close), I’ll just assume you’re committing a ‘middle ground’ fallacy, as that seems the most plausible explanation for your insistence. Unless and until proven otherwise.

    It’s perfectly possible for someone’s genuine, Christian convictions to lead them to consistently — say upwards of 95% of the time — to align with a particular political party’s convictions. Unless that party is the Democratic party, of course, THEN it becomes virtually impossible. <– half joking about the last sentence.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I think the big challenge for me is when I sense a need to work for political outcomes. If it is just a matter of casting a vote on an issue or a candidate, then I can keep that somewhat pure in terms of my own personal entanglement. But deep political change requires coalitions and relationships over time. You have to be in the political arena in order to effect your aims and that inevitably means having to partner with people and organizations with whom you disagree about other issues. We can err either in the direction of disengagement or accommodation. Knowing how navigate the waters in between is daunting!

  • scotmcknight

    Andrew, come back tomorrow! (Or tonight.)

  • scotmcknight

    Nathan, I will accept your pushback at the theoretical level.

  • scotmcknight

    But, Nathan, the substance of the post is about ecclesially-centered politics.

  • TOK

    Nathan, I agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with siding with a particular political party.

    I DO have a problem with your “half-joke” (which I suspect is more than a ‘half’ joke) about which political party is “right”.

    What that joke represents is a theological conviction is about how xns change culture: through political proccesses and not the church.

    Jesus welcomed all types into his disciple group. There’s more than enough to suggest they had quite differing political viewpoints. The strength of the group was centered on the Gospel, not political conviction.

    The problem with thinking one side is right (for me) vs. one side is right (for everyone) is now you are taking a political stance and fusing it with a Gospel conviction. I believe this deeply, deeply hurts our witness and confuses others (xns and non-xns alike) as to the nature of the Gospel.

  • http://www.allanbevere.com Allan R. Bevere

    I think the problem for all of us is that we have so saturated in state-centered politics, it is very difficult for Christians to comprehend and articulate ecclesially-centered politics.

  • Adam

    Let’s look at Biblical issues that are often polarizing topics in out culture today: sanctity of life (abortion), same sex marriage, caring for the oppressed and weak (a call to Christians and the Church, not the government), capitalistic principles (such as King David and King Solomon), interpretation of the scriptures, etc., how can one align to, say, liberal principles? I don’t see how one can be a Republican or Democrat, but a conservative, doing the work we’ve been called to do under specific and direct conservative Biblical principles.

  • Adam

    I’ll also add that I am a Calvinist, so I may differ from a few folks here.

  • fb

    adam (#11 and 12): i am sympathetic to your position, but i wonder how something like our involvement in foreign wars and a policy of perpetual war, use of torture, etc. fit your conception of conservatism. i know that older style conservatives were pretty circumspect about involvement in foreign wars, but the neo-conservative variety seem to see them as a means to living out the mandate to spread freedom to the world. comment?

  • Adam

    FB, you’re assuming that because I call myself a conservative that I condone torture? I’m curious what conservative examples you’re referring to?
    Bush? He wasn’t a conservative.

  • Adam

    I will also say, if you’re sympathetic to my position, then disagreement on politics is the least of our issues.

  • fb

    adam: i seem to have offended you. my apologies; that was not my intention. to clarify, i was NOT assuming that you condone torture; i ASKED how neo-conservative policies fit with your vision of conservatism. your comment about george w bush gives me some idea of where you might come down. if i’m reading you correctly, they don’t. but no need to get your dander up. it was an honest question.

  • AHH

    Along these lines, one could note (and perhaps lament) that the “Evangelical channel” on Patheos features Nancy French, which is in large part a “Romney for President” blog.

  • Roger

    Scot – I would concur there is less partisanship among the “younger ‘Reformed’” crowd than in their evangelical predecessors.

    My question would be about what you mean by “a church that follows Jesus as King, that votes its conscience not on the basis..” Are you speaking about a collective conscience (of “a church”) or individuals consciences that are shaped by the gospel. e.g. I could see two people in the same local congregation who are equally opposed to abortion but vote for opposite candidates (say, a Republican candidate b/c of lip service to end abortion or a Democratic candidate b/c they think abortion won’t end anyway and generally support other Democratic principles).

  • Adam

    FB, I’m not offended, just being direct. I’m not old school or new school. I’m just conservative. I didn’t support the use of war in Iraq; but I would if say Israel were attacked.

    I typically don’t vote because politicians do not generally align to my principles. That said, I do vote againsT same sex marriage, abortion, etc.

  • scotmcknight

    Roger, individuals …

  • JamesT

    But the question I have is is there an issue that is so huge that one must vote with respect to that issue Even within the Gospel and being subordinate to the King, are all issues of equal import? If Party A supported nearly every major and minor concern you (or the Gospel) have but endorses slavery, could you vote for that party? Obviously, I’m talking about abortion, though some do not believe that that is equivalent to slavery. Are there any issues that are absolutes?

  • dmichael100

    Considering I’m writing a book titled Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Worldliness, this topic got may attention. My book title probably betrays my view! We have lost the distinction between “We the people of God” and “We the people” of America. Jesus chose to say “My kingdom is not of this world” while standing in the government offices. Just look at the first century church: no calls to get out the vote; march on the Roman Senate: just alot of about being “strangers and aliens” and being a citizen of a city not built by human(even Christian patriot) hands. Scripture is abundantly clear. The only time I hear “My kingdom is not of this world” interpreted today is to explain what it DOESN’T mean.
    The point is this: when the culture hears “Christian” today, they hear political positions. That has become our gospel. My book is replete with common examples. People really do think (even in churches) that political, Americanized liberty and freedom is biblical liberty and freedom. They are VERY different concepts.
    However much good we think we may be doing in political activisim by “being salt and light” the fact is that the world now hears a very different message. The gospel is being obscured. That’s all.

  • Adam

    Dmichael, are you really writing a book? Sounds like a good read.

  • Richard Armour

    I think most people of faith already exist in the “3rd way” already, politics being what it has become. Your concern is right leaning Christians being co-opted by Republican politics, but where is the concern about those leaning left being co-opted by the Democratic party? Being a conservative thinker I see that as much more insidious. Charity is the work of the Church and indivduals who hear the constant call of God to that work. Poll after poll shows that conservatives do that personally in a much bigger way than do liberals who have farmed that out to their tax bill in many cases. Government can cure none of the ills (sin) of man. The left has been totally duped into thinking government can do this in a practical way beyond a safety net administered at the local level. That along with accepting the murder of millions of children for convenience sake, and the deconstruction of the marriage convenant in my estimation is more corrosive to faith and the gospel.

  • Richard Armour

    Not sure what it means, but interesting that I just noticed a stop Karl Rove ad on this site.

  • http://patricklmitchell.wordpress.com Patrick Mitchell

    I think Holcomb is right to intuit a middle way. I am quite Hauerwasian in my politic, which makes me as predictable as a right-wing sympathizer and cheerleader. However, my brothers and sisters who claim the conservative way (that is usually Republican) really seem to have an issue with a government that supports welfare and aiding the poor. That’s difficult for me to imagine. Even if I support the poor via my church or community centers, I’m not going to cry over being taxed to help others I don’t know. Moreover, point me to the wars that ‘conservatives’ don’t consider to be just.

    I think a lot of this comes down to what Hauerwas has been trying to challenge for years, namely that the American ‘we’ is not the same as the ‘Christian’ we. All the best, Scot, with what you’re trying to facilitate.

  • Greg D

    So, why vote at all if God in His sovereignty places authority into their places? Does our vote REALLY put people into office or is it just an illusion? Nevertheless, my theology does not allow me to vote for any candidate (usually on the right) who supports gun ownership, capital punishment, and the excessive militarization of our country at the expense of the poor. On the other hand, my theology does not allow me to vote for any candidate (usually on the left) who supports the slaughter of millions of innocent babies, excessive taxation, and the legalization of drugs and gay marriage. So, where does this leave me if in good conscience I cannot vote based on my understanding of the gospel? I guess this is where I part ways from many of my American Christian brothers and lean towards the Anabaptist tradition. Placing no hope in politics, but only by incarnating the kingdom of God through our Spirit-led lives can this earthly kingdom truly be changed.


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