A Theology of Political Engagement in the Church

One of my pet topics in theology is how the church engages the public square. Essentially, how do we engage culture and the world around us. This is most clearly scene in our engagement in politics. If recent history has taught us anything it is that the church has a lot to learn when it comes to being hospitable and welcoming of other viewpoints, essentially being civil when it comes to opponents. (It is something, I believe, can also be applied to theological arguments).

That being said, in one of my classes I attempted to articulate a theology of welcome as it relates to different political perspectives, using the 2010 midterms as a guide, but also recognizing that, historically, we have not done well in this area. Over the course of the next few days, I will post the paper here to encourage discussion on this topic. I believe that if the church is not better prepared to handle political engagement that we could continue to bring about rifts in our congregation along political boundaries that have nothing to do with what it means to be the church.

Today, I will post the introduction and a look into the problem itself. Tomorrow, I will post an analyzation of the issue and historical review of political engagement in the church. The historical review is brief and does not intend to deal with every issue the church has ever faced when it comes to political engagement. Wednesday, we will look at framework for response. And, Thursday we will apply and offer concluding remarks.

Introduction

The 2010 midterm election is one many will not soon forget. It featured a daily  stream of political ads which attacked everything from a politician’s character to their faith.

It was an election that featured the rise of the Tea Party, the defeat of Democrats in Congress, and supposed voter anger regarding abuses of the Constitution.

When the election season was complete, more than $4 billion was spent on campaign ads (a record), which were mostly negative in nature and dealt little with the candidate’s platform or ideas for the country.

It is safe to say the tone of the midterm election is one that has not been seen in quite some time, and is only enhanced by the increasing polarized nature of American politics.

While it would be easy to write off the negative tone of the 2010 election as a secular issue, it is something that Christians should be concerned about, especially as it relates to issues of welcome and hospitality. We, as Christians, are just as guilty of perpetrating negative responses when it comes to our interaction with politics. Christians have, at times, been more defined by an attitude of ugliness and rudeness to political opponents than a position of love of the other.

Instead of dialoguing with those with whom we may disagree, we are more likely to take on the image of the world and exclude and discredit them.

So what does it mean to offer hospitality and welcome to those with whom we disagree? What would it look like to move beyond ourselves and welcome the other and create the space for dialogue? This is an important issue for the church to consider, especially as we interact with a world that is becoming more polarized along party lines, something that has certainly impacted our congregations.

It is my belief, and one that will define the main theme of this paper, that exclusion on the basis of thought is one of the most unrecognized forms of exclusion that exists today. In my former work in public policy and in ministry, I have witnessed how Christians are susceptible to denouncing the humanity or goodness of a political opponent, but be completely unaware of doing so when challenged on it. It is not just in political thought that this occurs, but also along theological differences. I have both done this and been a victim of it. This paper will offer a theology of hospitality and welcome to those with whom we disagree in political thought. It will attempt to answer why exclusion takes place, analyze the issue, and offer some thoughts of what true hospitality in this arena would look like, with the recognition that political thought can be easily interchangeable with theological thought.

The Problem

In order to go deeper into the theology of welcome in political thought, we must understand the issue of polarization of political thought in the church as it exists today. At the root of the problem is how Christians have often looked more like the world when it comes to engaging opponents, especially in terms of politics, than we have in having an ethic of loving our neighbor as ourself

or loving our enemies.

We act as though it is impossible for someone to disagree with us and still maintain the Christian faith. Stephen Carter writes of a student who could not believe a Christian could say something nice about President Clinton, and of a radio host who received death threats for reminding listeners to pray for the elected leaders of the country.

Carter writes, “[W]e seem to mimic the secular world’s conflation of disagreement with wickedness, as if not sharing my worldview places my critic outside the realm of rational discourse.”

This belief that someone cannot be a “good” Christian if we disagree in our thinking  occurs on both sides of the political aisle. Tony Campolo writes that Christian liberals are wrong to call the Religious Rights ‘fascists,’ as well as conservatives who call the left ‘communists.’

By using these words and perpetrating these attitudes, we create barriers which place a distance between those within the church on the left and the right and allow one to improperly question the humanity of the other view point.

So who is affected by this attitude of disrespect towards those with whom we disagree? There are potentially two groups impacted by some Christians’ denouncement and exclusion of anyone who potentially disagrees with them, especially in politics. The first is the body of Christ itself. Perhaps most apparent is that Christians who promote exclusionary language with regard to political thought are contributing more to the problem than to the solution.

Instead of being a voice of peace and openness, we become a voice of distraction and incivility. Christians who promote exclusionary language in political thought also run the risk of being hypocritical in their response to the world, which weakens their individual witness.

We cannot promote Christian love of other while denouncing the dignity and humanity of those with whom we disagree without being considered by some as a hypocrite. Society will not see the body of Christ as a witness of love, but as a witness of disagreement.

That leads to the second group impacted by this issue. Those outside the body of Christ – the secular world – are affected by Christians’ negativity towards political disagreement. As Christians, we are the embodiment of the Gospel of Christ Jesus, especially to the secular world. It is important to be reminded that “our words and actions shape people’s experiences and impressions of Jesus.”

When we become known for our hatred of the other and our disrespect, we do not give a reason for someone to join us in following Christ.

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