The Common Good

What Do You Mean by Politics? (Part 2 of 2 by Brian McLaren)

[continued from part one]

What's at issue in the SBC, and in the larger evangelical community (and, we could add, in the mainline and Roman Catholic communities as well), isn't whether faith is political. Nobody (or almost nobody) is arguing for dropping the second half of the great commandment -- so that "loving God" is about faith and is central, but "loving neighbor" is about politics and is therefore marginal. Nobody is trying to divide the world into a spiritual realm that is personal and private and about faith, versus a secular realm that is social and public and about politics. Nobody is trying to say that faith has nothing to say about how people organize and govern themselves - how they seek justice, how they express kindness, how they walk humbly with God and in harmony with themselves, their neighbors, their enemies, and God's creation as a whole.

On both sides of these tensions -- this is worth emphasizing once more, to the point of redundancy -- we're agreed that faith relates to all of life, that faith is, as Jim Wallis wisely and repeatedly reminds us, both personal and social, both private and public. Nobody (or almost nobody) disagrees on this anymore -- thanks be to God.

The problem comes when "politics" comes to mean "dirty politics" or "partisan politics" or "narrow, wedge-issue, litmus-test, culture-wars politics." So when people suggest that caring for the environment is not a political issue, what they really mean (I think) is that it shouldn't be a partisan issue, a wedge issue, a left-right issue. Rather, they're saying that as followers of Christ, we shouldn't begin with the question, "What would Karl Rove (or James Carville) do?" We should ask the more obvious and Christian question. We should start with faith in our Creator and then move to politics in a spirit of justice, kindness, and humility -- not start with partisan politics and use faith to buttress it on the one hand, and not reduce faith to the private, personal realm so it has nothing to do with politics on the other.

So, perhaps when we read articles and hear discussions on faith and politics, we should develop the habit of raising this question, "Before we go any further, what do you mean by politics?"

Brian McLaren also blogs at and serves as board chair for Sojourners. He is an author and speaker ( His most recent books include Everything Must Change (2007) and Finding Our Way Again (2008).

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