Public Jesus: How Churches Can Talk about Politics in an Election Year (Without Killing Each Other)

By Tim Suttle 7-12-2012
Photo by Chris Maddaloni CQ-Roll Call Group /Getty Images.
Photo by Chris Maddaloni CQ-Roll Call Group /Getty Images.

Learning to speak as a Christian is one of the most important and often ignored aspects of our discipleship. Nowhere is this fact more obvious than when churches try to talk about politics. When the small group leader makes a disparaging comment about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, or a car rolls into the church parking lot with a “NOBAMA” bumper sticker proudly displayed, what do we do?

Is bumper sticker propaganda and negativity the best we have to offer?

Admittedly it can be risky to talk about politics in the local church. All it takes is one idea or statement that flies in the face of someone’s deeply held convictions and that could be the end of our influence and the end of that person’s involvement in our ministry.

Still, the upcoming presidential election will be the defining cultural event of the next six months. If we completely ignore it we are missing a golden opportunity for discipleship.

How can churches have a healthy conversation about politics in the middle of a national election without demonizing the opposition and causing disunity?

I’ve been working on this question for months now, and as part of my preparation I wrote a book called Public Jesus. Here’s a little bit about what I’ve learned in the process:

1) Love the One You’re With

The two most divisive words in the English language during an election cycle are: liberal and conservative. I think both of these words get a bad rap. The root of liberal is the word liberate. Liberation is about setting free all who live in bondage. Liberators teach us how to say, “Yes!”

The root of conservative is the word conserve. Conservation is all about understanding and preserving things that we care about and treasure, so that they don’t disappear. Conservers teach us how to say, “Hold on a second.”

Healthy societies learn how to properly value both conservatives and liberals. Churches need to build a healthy appreciation for both types of people. Conservatives and liberals both fail when they absolutize their own predisposition and attempt to exclude or demonize the other. The church can be the one place where liberators and conservers live in harmony, working toward a common vision of the future.

The vision of the kingdom of God is mostly centered on the idea of peace, or shalom: everything in its proper order, dynamically and harmoniously relating to all other things. This vision of the kingdom needs both liberators and conservers chasing it together arm in arm. There is no true conservatism without conserving economic and social justice. There is no true liberalism if we jettison all moral limits in the quest for personal freedom.

2) Seek First the Kingdom, Not the Party

If the vision that drives us is the success of a political party it’s too small. If the vision toward which we are working is the success of a nation, it‘s too small. Jesus is not about political parties or nation states. Jesus is about the whole world.

In Galatians 2 Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It can be a helpful rhetorical exercise to insert all of our various identities into that verse. Personally, I can say, “It is no longer a man who lives,” or “it is no longer a pastor who lives.” Learning how to say, “It is no longer a Republican who lives… it is no longer a Democrat who lives, but Christ who lives in me” is a rare accomplishment. When attempting to speak about politics, these are the first words every Christian must learn to say.

Jesus taught that if we will seek first the kingdom, then everything else will fall into place. Christians need to constantly remind ourselves that our major investment is not in a party or a candidate, but in the kingdom of God. Try to say it: “I’m not really a Democrat. I’m not really a Republican. I’m a Christian.” Until we can say it and mean it, we will never be able to appropriately embrace other ways of belonging (like political parties and nations).

Once we become citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, nothing can usurp the claim Jesus has upon our identity. You may still vote one way, I may vote the other way, but at the end of the day that’s not what defines us. Full participation in either party means giving our proxy to leaders who would disingenuously use religion as a political tactic without batting an eye, and who would intentionally lie and mislead in order to win our votes. Until something changes, neither party deserves that kind of loyalty.

3) All Politics is Local

In order to have a civil discussion about politics in the local church, it must be rooted in a much larger conversation about what Jesus wants for the world. The political conversation in our churches has to start with basic questions about life, work, shalom (peace), public speech, fidelity, acceptance, forgiveness, enemy love, and so on. Christian politics isn’t about winning elections. Christian politics is about the church learning to live together under the lordship of Jesus Christ. If we vote for something we are not yet willing to embody, we become hypocrites.

The best way for Christians to work to bring freedom, justice, and peace to any society may not actually be primarily through direct involvement in politics – although I still think politics can be a healthy pursuit. Nevertheless, we can affect much more change to a society when we find ways to simply embody Jesus in our common life.

You want to change the world? Participate in the mission of God: Feed the hungry. Care for the homeless. Clothe the naked. Love your enemies. Be committed to your marriage and your friendships. Care for your children. Return violence with peace. Take care of the alien living among you. You want to change the world? Join with a church community that is doing its best to be good news to the vulnerable and the weak. That is what Christian politics should be. If we do this, we will absolutely impact the political scene.

4) Forget About Winning and Losing

The most essential component of talking about politics in the local church is that the conversation cannot be about winners and losers. A church’s ability to be faithful in a particular community is never about having the right answers to the right questions, or backing the right candidate. What matters is that we live in fidelity to one another and to Jesus.

Political elections are important to be sure, but they are not nearly as important as it is for the church to live in harmony. If we let a political election divide us, then it doesn’t matter if our side wins – we all lose. In the end, we all must vote our conscience. Then we lock arms and get back to our real work: embodying the kingdom in our common life – together.

If you would like to start a conversation about what this might look like in your church, Public Jesus is a book and DVD series designed to help facilitate dialogue among Christians about how faith in Christ should affect public life.

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, musician, and self-proclaimed, "all-around huge nerd." He's the author of two books: An Evangelical Social Gospel? and his latest, Public Jesus, and he sometimes writes for the religion section at the Huffington Post and "On Faith" at the Washington Post. You can read more of Tim's writing on his blog, Paperback Theology. Once upon a time Tim was the founder and front-man of the Christian band Satellite Soul. And he considers himself lucky to be the Lead Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan.

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