Politics and the Gospel

In Culture by Ricky Stark0 Comments

It’s election season, which means your television screen is currently being bombarded by campaign ads, debates, and mudslinging.  Primaries are just around the corner, and then the general election will follow–and before you know it, Congress and the White House may or may not look all that different.

Christians these days typically have one of two approaches to politics.  The first is an over-enthusiastic immersion into the political process—usually with a battle cry to return America to her so-called “Christian” roots.  This group typically likes to insert the word “America” into Bible verses about Israel and tends to view God and country as two sides of the same coin.  While many in this group would gladly proclaim, “Jesus saves,” and would even be quick to speak of the kingdom of God, their rhetoric sometimes suggests that the kingdom that they have in mind is the United States and that salvation comes from a prosperous Union.

On the other side and prevalent especially among millennials is a complete withdrawal from politics.  Disillusioned by the tactics of some in the Moral Majority, people in this group tend to view political engagement as detracting from gospel proclamation and kingdom advancement.  “Jesus said His kingdom was not of this earth, so why do we act like it is?” they might ask.  They are right to question the wisdom of the previous group, but all good intentions aside, they may have overcorrected.  After all, the gospel inevitably has political implications.  As Eric Metaxas stated in a 2013 speech,

“Don’t you think the African slaves were glad [William] Wilberforce allowed his religion to affect his politics?  In those days the settled science was that slavery and the slave trade were just the way it was and to even discuss abolishing them was insane.  But devout Christians who believed every human being is made in the image of God forced the discussion.”Eric Metaxas

And God is calling Christians today to do the same–to allow their faith to influence their vote and to use their voice in the public square to proclaim the justice and mercy that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Certainly, the church must avoid the excesses of previous generations who tended to view the state and the church as one, conflating the gospel vision with the American dream.  We must repent of such an approach and fix our eyes on Christ and His kingdom.  Nevertheless, part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus involves being a good citizen, a good neighbor, and a promoter of the common good.  In other words, one is not stuck with only two options when it comes to politics—to engage or disengage; rather, one has a responsibility to engage culture with the truth of the gospel while remaining grounded in the knowledge that our hope rests not in the future of America but rather in the coming of a reigning King.

The political season is a great time to help students think through how the gospel plays out in the public square.  Even though the vast majority of your students will not be able to legally vote in the general election (with the exception of most of your seniors), they are never too young to begin to think through worldview implications, to become educated on major issues, and to pray and work for mercy and justice.

Here are a few areas you might consider addressing:
  1. Jesus is bigger than political parties.

While many evangelicals in America tend to identify with one political party over another, neither of the major American political parties has the full truth, and both are in need of the gospel.  As with all entities in a fallen world, all political platforms are inevitably flawed.  Christians would do well to align themselves with Christ rather than entrenching themselves in partisanship—that way, they can speak the truth of God’s Word to both sides of the aisle without being dismissed as being “from the other side” or being ignored because “we’ve already got your vote.”

  1. Politics will not ultimately save.

Cultural engagement is not about Christians forcing everyone else to act like Christians.  Passing certain legislation may curtail certain sin, but we more than anybody ought to know that the Law does not save—that salvation requires a change in heart.  Therefore, we recognize that true salvation can only result from people genuinely receiving the gospel—not from our forcing or coercing them to “accept Jesus.”  Thus, while we should be involved in the political process, our hope is not ultimately in the political process.  More than just showing up at the ballot box, we seek to point our neighbors to the eternal hope found in Jesus Christ.  If we want our nation to change, we should worry more about engaging our next-door neighbor with the gospel than getting the right person in the White House.

  1. Character is the most important thing when it comes to leadership.

There will always be candidates who look really good on the outside—who can talk a good game, tote a successful record, and pander to the crowd.  But God is not interested on the outside.  He is interested in the man or woman’s heart.  In the Old Testament, Saul was impressive on the outside, and the people loved him because of it.  I’m sure they thought that he would protect them from outside invaders, promote economic growth, and make Israel great among the nations.  But he was a disaster of a king.  The people’s hope was misplaced.  David, on the other hand, was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22).  Of course, even David was imperfect, again reminding us that our hope is not in any man or woman but in Jesus.  Nevertheless, if you want a good leader, look first at his/her character.  Character is not the only quality to consider in a candidate; certainly, one would desire that candidates have wisdom and experience in a host of other areas.  But even if they have all the wisdom and experience in the world, if they lack character, they should also lack your trust—and your vote.

  1. Christians should focus on the issues.

Again, the main focus of a Christian when it comes to politics is not partisanship; rather, it is the implications of the gospel to all of life, particularly in regard to the welfare of one’s neighbor.  Hence, some issues to consider are as follows:

  • How do we protect all of life? If all people are created equal—as both the Declaration of Independence and Scripture teach (Gen 1:27)—then all lives are worthy of protection.  From the unborn to the elderly, from the healthy to the disabled, from the fatherless to the poor—we champion and value all of life.  Thus, we support policies that promote and protect all life, particularly that of the most vulnerable among us.
  • How do we spend our money? Our money goes toward what we value as a culture—what we hold sacred.  Moreover, our overspending reveals a lack of discipline and a lack of concern for our neighbors of future generations.  Thus, our understanding of the gospel will affect our approach to the economy.
  • How do we treat the foreigner in our midst? The Bible speaks on immigration—and what it has to say might be different than what you think (cf. Exod 22:21; Lev 19:33-34; Mal 3:5).  How do we handle this issue with both justice and mercy?  After all, how we treat immigrants reveals a lot about who we say our God is.
  • How do we respond to humanitarian crises around the world? From the genocide in the Middle East to the refugees flooding into Europe to natural disasters, what role should the government play in relieving suffering in the world?  But more importantly, what role should the church play in helping the least of these?
  • When are we justified to go to war? And how should we treat enemy prisoners of war and suspected terrorists in light of our call to love our enemies?  These issues in particular can get complicated, but we as Christians must be prepared to handle them.

Of course, the list is endless, but what is obvious is that our worldview and cultural engagement cannot be shaped by any political platform; instead, it must arise from the gospel itself.  Certainly, there will be areas that prove more controversial and over which even believers can disagree.  The gospel allows for that and so should you.  Nevertheless, the gospel has much to say in regard to our lives in the public square.  Christians must seek to view every vote, every candidate, and every policy through the lens of Scripture.  So don’t waste this political season.  Take advantage of it to equip students to make much of Jesus in their neighborhoods, nation, and the world.  If you’re looking for some good resources in this area, The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s website is a good place to start.

Ricky Stark is passionate about student ministry and has served in both large and small church contexts. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is studying Christian philosophy, world religions, and theological aesthetics. His desire is to equip this generation to know and love Jesus, to see Jesus as better than life itself, and to risk everything to make Jesus known.