When I was young we had a nice woman come and knock on our door campaigning for herself to be the new Saline County Treasurer. She was kind and bubbly, and she asked me if I would help her win.
I was 10.
But I said yes. My friend and I went up and down both of the streets in our area, knocking on doors and handing out yard signs and bumper stickers for her. We even had learned a few of her talking points as we tried to convince others to take up our righteous cause.
It was intoxicating. In fact, she really just got us started down the road of political action.She was the gateway politician for us.
Two years later my friend and I would get out the phone book and call every single person in the Benton area and ask them to vote for George H.W. Bush’s re-election against Clinton.
On the night of the election, we gathered in the Republican Headquarters of Benton Arkansas, and waited as the results came in. We were devastated when they did.
Clinton had won, and Saline County had even voted for him! Who would have thought that two 12 year old boys making un-authorized phone calls for Bush wouldn’t have worked?
And that’s kind of the end of my political activity.
Since then, I’ve voted and had heated conversations just like the next person, but I’ve tried to stop putting much weight on the political system. I’m still glad that we have public servants who (hopefully) try to work hard and honestly to serve their constituents.
But I am a preacher and so my concerns are now quite different than the American government. They are much smaller, and much more important, and yet still somewhat tied together.
In his great book, “To Change the World” James Davidson Hunter makes one of the most helpful observations about our political and religious climate that I have heard in my life.
He first paints the different options for Jesus followers in America, and he’s equally hard on all of them…including my own. For both Republican and Democrat Jesus people, he warns of the flawed approach to labeling any political force “Christian”
But for my leaning, the Anabaptist approach to politics, Hunter also has words of critique. I have been shaped by the writings of people like Yoder and Claiborne and N.T. Wright, who have (rightfully) reminded us that Caesar isn’t Lord (I’ll talk about that Monday).
But, Hunter reminds us that we can’t just define ourselves by what we are not. That is, if I go around introducing myself as “not an elephant”, eventually people are going to start associating me with large mammals with trunks.
Here’s Hunter’s point:
“Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms…and Culture is always most powerful when it is most taken for granted, it brings into [focus] just how powerful a force politicization is in our time.”
In other words, when Jesus followers think about how to change the world in America, they almost universally turn to politics in one form or another.
There is a tragic irony in this.
Politics serve a valid function in our world, but they only do so with the right kinds of people. People who serve their various callings well.
I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans here, after all, the scandals seem pretty evenly proportioned between the parties. What we need runs deeper that right or left political idealism, what we need are the kinds of people who have a better character.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like over the past two decades the amount of scandals among politicians and public leaders have gone up exponentially.
We don’t just need a particular kind of ideology in politics. We need a particular kind of person.
And, the irony of all this, is that churches could have served a purpose here that would have actually helped in the American political system, just not directly.
Look again at Hunter:
“Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power-not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere. It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics…The irony is that no group in American society has done more to politicize values over the last half century, and therefore undermine their renewal, than Christian-both on the Right and on the Left. Both sides are implicated and remain implicated today.”
In other words, the world needs a certain kind of man or woman who is capable of stewarding power loosely, filled with values that are actually values not talking points(!) for a particular party platform.
And this doesn’t happen by the church going deeper into politics, but by separating from it all together.
It’s fine to care about who is in the Oval office, or running the treasury of the Saline County Courthouse, but God cares much more about what kind of person his churches are forming. And the irony is, that eventually some of those people will one day be in those offices.
The best contribution Jesus-followers can make to society as a whole is by making sure that they are formed into the right kinds of people.
And sure, it takes longer, and you won’t be able to get into those heated arguments where you call down the wrath of God because you feel some righteous indignation because you care about the poor or the unborn, or the environment.
But it works.
Hunter believes it’s time for the Seperation of Church and State.
For Church and State.