We live in an increasingly secular world. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2021, 63% of Americans identified as Christian, down 12 percentage points over the span of a decade.1 In contrast, 29% claim to be religiously unaffiliated, a trend which is becoming especially common among younger generations. The year 2019 saw the largest ever percentage of college-aged students who considered themselves atheists.2 At the same time, we have seen political polarization develop into a looming force from which it seems impossible to escape: Those who identify with one of the two major parties increasingly hold negative views of those across the aisle. A 2020 poll found that 64% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans saw the other party as dangerous. According to a 2021 survey, 15% of those surveyed had ended a friendship over political differences.3 Among Republicans, 53% said that they had at least some left-leaning friends, while only 32% of Democrats reported having Republican friends.4 Whatever the causes may be, it is evident that partisan divisions are continually sharpening. Where does Christianity fit into this landscape? For those of us who identify as Christian, facing the pressures of political division and an increasingly secular population, what is our responsibility? The Bible describes Christians as countercultural; that can apply to our political behavior as well. As a Christian, I believe the partisan divide that is tearing our country apart can be healed by love alone — a Christ-like love, a love for all people regardless of differences. For that, we must consistently look to Christ first.
Evidence supports the idea that Christians are active in the political sphere on both sides of the spectrum. A study from the American Political Science Association spoke with Christians of several denominations to discover how Christians believed faith and politics should intersect.5 The study found that in many cases, political views were informed by a person’s faith, with those on the left focusing more on social justice and separation of church and state, and those on the right emphasizing sharing truth and having a “Christ-like effect” on society.6 Evangelicals in particular hinged on a sense of individualism, believing that “people need to choose for themselves what is right” and that social change will come about naturally from relationship-building.7 However, among all varieties of Christians, there was one point on which all seemed to agree: caring for others is the most important role of a Christian, and that role can inform political decision-making.8
In terms of political behavior, this study also found that “politics drives religious conversion,” in the sense that religious people may be inclined to switch churches based on their church’s political practices or ideology; for example, a conservative church member might leave the church if its pastor begins to preach liberal messages, indicating that there is disagreement within the church about what ideology Christianity should support.9 Additionally, a study from the National Academy of Sciences found that religiosity or religious traditionalism is the most influential factor in determining voting behavior.10 The study describes a sort of “religious gap,” whereby an overwhelming percentage of devout Christians identify as conservative.11 The study also identifies a “culture war” between the religious left and right, with the most significant contentions shown through the issues of abortion, gay rights, and separation of church and state.12 Within these issue areas, the study found that those surveyed, both liberal and conservative, attributed their own political ideologies to Christ himself, believing that Jesus would have held their views, perhaps to an even more extreme degree.13 Clearly, Christians fall prey to the same divisions that plague U.S. politics, and this impacts political behavior. But should it? How should we as Christians interact with this political climate?
In my experiences at Hope College, I found that being a Christian could make students feel passive when it comes to politics. Students at Hope, in an effort to avoid being offensive or uncomfortable, dodge political conversations, which limits open discussion. But while our Christianity should encourage us to think through what we say and how we handle political conversations, it should not dissuade us from political activity. A deacon from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church describes the right of religious liberty as being based in human nature; therefore, it is important for Christians to vote to defend the right of religious liberty.14 The Religion News Service (RNS) affirms this point and further declares that God uses politics for a greater purpose.15 He works through political leaders, and he calls us as citizens to engage and intercede in the political sphere to promote Christian principles. However, both of these articles also cite the importance of recognizing God as the ultimate authority, above any man or institution. A healthy balance between these two principles can provide Christians with perspective on how to interact with politics. At the same time we should recognize that the will of God is higher than any elected representative. We should also feel free to use our voices and be unafraid to opine on what is best for our country. As the RNS points out, “the flourishing of our world is, in part, our responsibility. If I have the only light in a dark room, its darkness is my fault.”16 We as Christians need to be involved in the political process and political conversation. After all, even Christ was not passive in convicting those with whom he disagreed. If we wish to see Christianity present in our nation’s bones, if we wish to spread and uphold God as the ultimate source of goodness, voting can amplify the Christian voice.
Perhaps more important than our role in the political process is our role in promoting political civility. One example of a Christian organization that supports this idea is The Faith and Politics Institute, whose mission statement proclaims that it seeks to “cultivate mutual respect, moral reflection, increased understanding, and honest conversation among political leaders to advance productive discourse and constructive collaboration.”17 The group seeks to cultivate compassion among political leaders, placing Christian principles at the forefront of conversation. This organization is based on what I consider the basis of Christianity and the Christian interaction with politics: listening and loving. In modern politics, too often if a person’s political leaning is different from our own, we evaluate that trait as not only different but undesirable. We demonize not only alternate opinions but the people who believe in them. The danger threatening political civility comes when we allow a person’s political identification to define them, when people’s opinions impact how much we care for them and how willing we are to engage in conversation with them. If every word of political rhetoric were not tinged with condescension or even hatred, we could see real progress.
God commands us to be quick to listen and slow to anger, to understand the value in our diversity — including diversity of thought — and to love one another above all else. He tells us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” a principle from which many politicians could learn.18 He tells us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”19 Christ tells us that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”20 He commands us, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”21 Therefore, we should encourage our leaders to pursue understanding rather than divisive rhetoric. When conversing with those we disagree with, we should remember to listen rather than attack. Most importantly, we should see people as Jesus did. We should recognize people’s humanity before their political beliefs. Ultimately our partisan labels do not determine who we are. They do not formulate our identity. Our identity is in a God who made and loves each one of us, who values us just as much as the person across the political aisle. When we reach Heaven, there will be no labels, no separation based on ideology, and no partisan hatred. Christ sees us all as equal. No matter how flawed someone’s beliefs may be, His love remains the same. Thus, if we are truly to follow Christ’s one primary command, to love one another as He would, we must remember to treat one another with respect and dignity.
One Sunday at Engedi Church, my pastor delivered one of the most convincing statements I have heard to date. He encouraged us to consider the following question before every political conversation or social media post ahead of the tense 2020 election: “Is what I’m about to say coming from a place of love for my brother or sister?” This question spoke to my heart and forced me to recall the moments when I’ve been less than an exemplary Christian, when my social media posts have been nasty, and when I have been hasty and contentious in political conversations. Jesus calls us each to be a light to the world, to show others the pure joy of following him through our lives and relationships. Are we really doing so if we allow political polarization to divide us? Are we truly serving as a light if we delve into the darkness that is hatred for those who believe differently from ourselves? We must be the light in a dark room, and to do so, we must remember to love first.
Morgan Brown ‘21 majored in English and minored in Political Science and Religion. She lives in Romeo, MI. We thank Dr. David Ryden (Political Science) for his involvement with Morgan’s piece.
1 Gregory A. Smith. 2021. “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiouslyunaffiliated/.
2 Faith & Politics Institute. 2019, https://www.faithandpolitics.org/.
3 Daniel A. Cox, Ryan Streeter, Samuel J. Abrams, and Jacqueline Clemence. 2020. “Socially distant: How our divided social networks explain our politics.” Survey Center on American Life, September 30, 2020, https://www. americansurveycenter.org/research/socially-distant-how-our-divided-social-networks-explain-our-politics/.
4 Cox, Streeter, Abrams, and Clemence, “Socially Distant.”
5 Amanda Friesen and Michael W. Wagner. 2012. “Beyond the ‘Three Bs’: How American Christians Approach Faith and Politics.” Politics and Religion, 2012, https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/B0537A22EBE53F7054A54B7F6752519C/S1755048312000028a.pdf/beyond_the_three_bs_how_american_christians_approach_faith_and_politics.pdf.
6 Friesen and Wagner, “Beyond the ‘Three Bs’,” 237.
7 Friesen and Wagner, “Beyond the ‘Three Bs’,” 240.
8 Friesen and Wagner, “Beyond the ‘Three Bs’,” 237.
9 Friesen and Wagner, “Beyond the ‘Three Bs’,” 247.
10 Lee D. Ross, Yphtach Lelkes, and Alexandra G. Russell. 2012. “How Christians reconcile their personal political views and the teachings of their faith: Projection as a means of dissonance reduction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 10, (March): 3616–3622, https://www.pnas.org/ content/109/10/3616.
11 Ross, Lelkes, and Russell, “How Christians reconcile,” 3616.
12 Ross, Lelkes, and Russell, “How Christians reconcile.
13 Ross, Lelkes, and Russell, “How Christians reconcile,” 3617–3621.
14 Ronald Michieli. 2020. “OPINION: Religion and politics: Why Christians need to start talking.” Journal Advocate, October 27, 2020, https://www.journal-advocate.com/2020/10/27/opinion-religion-and-politics-why-christians-need-to-start-talking/.
15 RNS Press Release Distribution Service. 2020. “What does the Bible say about politics?.” Religion News Service, October 6, 2020, https://religionnews.com/2020/10/06/what-does-the-bible-say-about-politics/.
16 RNS, “What does the Bible say about politics?”
17 “Mission.” The Faith & Politics Institute, https://www.faithandpolitics.org/mission.
18 Philippians 2:3
19 Matthew 5:44.
20 Proverbs 10:12.
21 John 13:34.
In any case, it isn’t up to us to rebuff a dad for his political convictions or where he needs to bring up his kid. For sure, if we somehow managed to begin passing judgment on guardians based on their political convictions, we would change the idea of family forever.
But it is not our place to punish a father for his political beliefs or where he wants to raise his child. Indeed, if we were to start judging parents on the basis of their political beliefs, we would change the concept of family for the rest of time.
Leave a comment