Politics and Perspective: Possible paths and perils

You’re a reasonable person. When it comes to politics, while you do tend to vote for one party more than others, you don’t think of yourself as particularly beholden to any. Even as you’ve watched with dread as the “election season” has bloated from a few weeks leading up to every other November to, now, essentially a nonstop gabfest driven ever faster by the 24/7 news cycle, you’ve worked hard at keeping an open mind. Political parties may be a necessary evil, but you strive to keep the shrill tones of partisanship from your civic participation. Yet, one day, you noticed that you had become what you so decry in others, and it happened so very slowly, so very gradually that, like the frog in the proverbial kettle, you didn’t even notice your fall until it was far, far too late.

It was like this. An election was coming up, and you wanted to be cautious how you proceeded. You had friends on either side of the contest, and you chuckled at their passion. Maybe you even had a flush of pride, comparing their zeal with your own careful detachment, but you stuffed this unseemly feeling down. After reading up on the various candidates, you came to the conclusion to support one in particular. It wasn’t that you couldn’t see the good in the other guy, but, all in all, you were comfortable with your choice.

Then it got more complicated. The friends whose “side” you picked were overjoyed, and they praised you for your intelligence and for coming to your senses. You might have enjoyed the compliment, but you tried to downplay any impression that this was a clear black and white issue. Your other friends, in contrast, were incredulous. “How could you even think to vote for that guy?!?! We thought you were a reasonable person!” Now, that last bit hurt. You didn’t begrudge them their choice, so why all this animosity?

You wanted to show your friends that it wasn’t a matter of abandoning logic, so you began to point out the reasons you’d drawn on to make you decision. This shouldn’t have been too hard. You’d done your homework, so, even if they disagreed with you in the end, surely they’d respect your decision once they’d heard your reasons. Yet, this was to no avail as your now-opponents proceeded to berate you and offer what were, at least to you, the flimsiest reasons for supporting their side.

As the calendar slipped closer to Election Day, the situation only seemed to get worse. You tried to reason with your erstwhile friends, but there seemed no way to get through to them. The more you offered solid and careful thinking, the more they seemed to slide into incoherency. Rather than following any semblance of rationality, these “friends” were now preaching the worst kinds of fallacies and personal attacks. This bothered and angered you greatly. If their ideas weren’t squelched, other people might get carried away. Whether you ever admitted it to yourself or not, you finally gave up on logic and fought fire with fire. This election, which you previously approached as a detached observer, now mattered too much to wait on the niceties of polite debate.

This kind of thing can happen to anyone, but it presents special problems to Christians. Now, few believers will think, or at least admit, that they hold that any political party enjoys God’s unqualified blessing, and we at least give lip service to the idea that our love for fellow believers in the eternal church trumps our loyalty to any transient faction. And yet when it comes to politics, do we not find ourselves slipping into the sorts of practices that we so oppose in principle?

Among the many biblical principles brought into discussions of this sort, there are two that seem to stand out. Pretty much all of us can comfortably say that we believe them, but it is rather a more complicated question whether we think our political opponents live them out. Herein lies the problem. Though we may see ourselves as following the straight and narrow, it becomes hard to stay true when all about us seem to be crossing line after line.

The first principle is the call for the church to act as a prophetic voice to the culture. This is the simple recognition that we live in a fallen world, and that part of the task of God’s people is to speak accordingly. Now, there is a great deal of disagreement about what this should look like, but there is for all of us some issue that we think demands our public voice of protest. Abortion, poverty, war, or what-have-you: we find in the Bible examples of the people of God speaking out.

The second principle is the call for the church to speak with respect. While the importance of the image of God in all human beings makes this an issue in our dealings with anyone, when it comes to politics the centrality of respect is redoubled because of the biblical call to respect one’s leaders. Considering that some of the leaders in the Bible were not the best of men, this is a powerful rebuke to those today who deride their elected officials.

So, if we all agree on these things, why do we continue to come into so much conflict with one another? If we all think there are some things worth bringing into the public sphere, why do we get upset by another’s “politicizing the gospel”? If we all think that everyone should be treated with dignity, why do we feel like someone else is demonizing “our guy” but never feel like we are going too far in our condemnations of theirs? Part of the problem is that we tend to approach this single goal of respectfully engaging in political discourse by multiple paths. When we see other Christians working with a different approach, judging them by ours, they seem to come up short. The irony being that at such times, they are looking at us with the same attitude of concern.

Certainly, there could well be innumerable roads towards responsible political engagement, but here we’ll deal with only three. These terms should be held loosely in one’s mind, as they are only to help us understand the problem, but Christians trying to do the right thing in politics tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum from quietism to moderation to advocacy. The goal with each of these is to avoid partisanship in our dialogue, and, though we all condemn it, we must always guard against it. Even though nobody goes around saying, “You know, I’m not really interested in listening to the other guy’s point. I’d rather blindly follow my own understanding and be entirely unfair to others,” it is precisely because none of us wants to think we could ever act in that way that we are in the most danger of doing so.

Quietism is the stance that the best way to avoid acrimonious debate is to avoid debate altogether. Looking at mess that we make of electoral issues, the desire simply to stay out of it or at least keep from adding to the carnage is a powerful one indeed. It should be kept in mind that quietism here does not mean withdrawing from the world or some failure to perform civic duties. Rather, it simply means that some Christians have decided that the wisest course is to keep political choices to oneself as much as is feasible.

Now, the benefits of such an approach are plain to see. If you’re not engaging in public discussion about political issues, you certainly will not be accused of stirring up rancor. You can do your homework and keep abreast of the issues of the day and then vote according to conscience, all the while making sure you don’t lead anyone to think you have confused the mission of the church with the platform of a party. There is a great deal of wisdom to this stance, and, frankly, we’d all be better off if we spoke less and listened more.

However, this does not mean that there are not problems with quietism. For one thing, though we may not give anyone the impression we have conflated “Christ and Candidate” because we haven’t said anything along those lines, this doesn’t mean that, in our heart of hearts, we aren’t as guilty as the most strident partisan. Even if we suppose that we can manage to keep our minds clear of such things, problems still remain. As mentioned above, there are times when we should speak to the watching world. Hardly anyone says nothing about politics, and we can find ourselves cherry picking the issues that we will speak about as opposed to those where we remain silent. Why did we decide to address this topic over here but not that one over there? Soon enough we find a conflict in our refusal to speak out that can be seen by our neighbors as a passive complicity. Ironically enough the quest for peace through avoiding conflict has the seeds of conflict within it.

Another way Christians work towards responsible dialogue is by fostering an attitude of moderation, by looking at both sides of an issue and trying to see the best in all candidates and positions. Since we cannot avoid conflict by avoiding debate entirely, then perhaps the least we can do is come at it with a disposition of equanimity, holding off judgment as long as possible. If quietism is a passive avoidance of conflict, then moderation is an active quest for balance in an otherwise unhinged realm.

There is a lot of merit in this line of thinking. Common sense dictates that no one group has a monopoly on virtue or vice, so taking the wisdom from both ends of the political spectrum can only be of benefit to all concerned. Partly this is simply noting that having a bad idea is not the same as being a bad person, and that just because someone is right in one area, this doesn’t mean they’re right all the time. Moderation demands a listening attitude and a willingness to live outside comfortable categories of left and right.

However, just as with quietism, there are some unintentional and, perhaps, unavoidable problems here, too. Partly because we have grown accustomed to thinking of political choices as being somewhere on a left to right sequence, we tend to think of taking some from each side leaving as us somewhere in the middle, neither one nor ten, but a good balanced five. This sounds good, all right, but in practice it gets rather more complicated, doesn’t it? Think of it this way, if I am conservative on taxation but liberal on gun control while you are the reverse, are we both moderates? Or, even more important than elusive definitions, is threading the middle always the best course of action? Aren’t there issues where a moderate, balanced approach veers into compromise? Perhaps the most subtle danger is the creeping sense of pride which can all too easily arise in the hearts of those who seek to live above the fray. “I am not partisan,” we say to ourselves, “Such is beneath me.” By thinking we are beyond parochialism, we lose the ability to see our own narrow-mindedness.

The third way through the morass is the open attempt to argue for one’s positions while keeping the tenor of debate in check. As opposed to mere partisanship, for which all issues seemingly become a life and death struggle, advocacy recognizes the importance of taking a stand publically but seeks to do so with humility and respect. Just as a lawyer can passionately argue a case without, necessarily, hating the opposing counsel, engaging in political debate in this manner is done while affording dignity to one’s opponent.

The strengths of this position are found in contrast to the weaknesses of the others. Where quietism can be reasonably charged with shirking duty through silence, advocacy speaks as the situation warrants. Where moderation can lead to elitist attitudes by those too pleased with their own sense of objectivity, advocacy recognizes that even the best of us thinks with a slant. When speaking of one’s own “side,” advocacy calls for the tacit admission that you could be wrong. When speaking of the other guy, it demands that a clear distinction be made between person and policy.

While this may seem like the silver bullet to solve all our problems, this approach comes with its own failings as well. Although it skirts some of its rivals’ issues, it partakes of others at the same time. Just as quietism can, through silence, offend those who see it as the time to speak out, so, too, advocacy can unintentionally offend by speaking when others would be more reticent. What is, to me, a clear moment to enter the fray, may be, to you, a sure sign I’ve confused church and party. When I think I am offering a legitimate and respectful critique of a person in power, you may well believe I am denigrating the leader of my people. In much the same way, just as my own sense of moderation can lead me to think I have moved beyond political vice, so, too, advocacy makes me think I have taken all necessary precautions and thereby blind me to the way I run roughshod over opponents. Thinking I’ve done everything to avoid belittling others may be my certain step towards denigration.

Sadly, we’ve come full circle. None of these well-intentioned plans solves all problems. There is no silver bullet. There is no sure path to respectful political engagement. Whatever course we take seems to lead us to one storm or another. However, there is reason for hope yet. The problem with these solutions is not that they seek to solve it all but that they seek to solve it all entirely. Though they fail in certain areas, they succeed in others. Perhaps, as with so many other areas of life, the answer is found not in some quick and easy, cookie-cutter plan, but in the harder road of a moment-by-moment life of discernment. Perhaps, rather than trying to come up with a singular answer to this conundrum, we’d be better off if we approached political engagement with a series of questions.

For starters, when speaking of another person or policy, are we following the Golden Rule? That is, are we characterizing their beliefs and proposals in the way we would want our own ideas detailed? Could our opponents hear our description of them and say, “Yes, that’s what we believe”? We’ve all seen our own ideas reduced to ridiculous caricatures only to be dismissed and we know it’s unfair when done to us. If others treat us this way, isn’t it likely that we, even unintentionally, treat them the same? One of the easiest ways to fail in this is when we ascribe to others motivations which they themselves deny holding. Does our opponent actually say they want to bring down the security of the nation? Do they claim they are driven by racial hatred? If they don’t say so themselves, then who are we to put words in their mouths?

A second question might be, where do we get our information? This is something of an elaboration of the Golden Rule question. Are we getting our information about the “other guy” from a reasonable source? To have a positive effect in this realm, it will do us no good at all if our only information about a position comes from people who don’t like the idea in the first place. This would make no more sense than if we listened to one soft drink’s commercials to get information about its rival. Now, we don’t have to take our opponents word on things, but we do need to make sure we’re listening to the best and brightest of their “side” rather than simply picking the source that confirms our own worst suspicions.

Third, how are we pushing our own ideas? Think about the realm of social media. When we “share” something, are we providing an argument or just a slogan? Political questions are more likely answered by an essay than a multiple choice. Are we providing reasons for our positions that can be hashed out and discussed, or are we simply venting? If the latter, then not only should we refrain from speaking, but perhaps we should evaluate our own ideas.

Fourth, are we passing what we might call, “The Dinner Test”? In our debates are we behaving towards others so that we could reasonably go out to eat with them after concluding our time of disagreement? Are we treating people in such a way, even as we sharpen iron together, that they can tell we see the world as bigger than the next election? There are times, indeed, when we must say to our fellow believers, “You are wrong,” but this statement must always be completed by saying, “You are wrong, brother/sister.”

Civic duties call, but our human frailties leave us no certain path. Hemmed in by our finite minds and corrupted by a fallen nature, we cannot move forward as though nothing is wrong. These four questions are no more a cure-all than the three approaches noted above. That is not the point. The point is that political discourse is a complicated business, and the wise road is more apt to be found by humble questions than by confident assertions. When looking for the right way forward in political engagement and when the appeal of rash words comes to our minds, we should look to the words of James who wrote, “Know this, my beloved brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness God requires.”

Copyright © 2014 Timothy Padgett


1. To what extent, and in what ways are you involved in political activities? Are you content with your level of involvement? Where do you fall “on the spectrum from quietism to moderation to advocacy?”

2. Describe the person(s) you know/knew personally who best embodies/embodied a distinctly Christian involvement in the political sphere of life. How has their example shaped you? Describe the person(s) you know/knew personally who best embodies/embodied a distinctly unchristian involvement in the political sphere of life. How has their example shaped you?

3. To what extent are you politicized? In other words, when social issues are raised in a conversation—e.g., abortion, war and armed intervention, immigration, terrorism, size of government, gun control, taxation, welfare, etc.—how quickly do you frame that issue, your thinking and the conversation in political terms?

4. Do you find yourself surprised (or appalled) when you discover that a close friend or respected colleague supports your candidate’s opponent, or takes the other side on some important social issue? What does this suggest about you?

5. “When it comes to politics,” Padgett writes, “do we not find ourselves slipping into the sorts of practices that we so oppose in principle?” Do you agree, if not about yourself then about the Christians you know?

6. Since we live in a cynical age, cynicism easily creeps into our view of the political aspects of citizenship and society, and is often most easily identified in our humor. So, we enjoy and repeat cynically witty statements.

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. (Mark Twain).

Politics is so difficult, it’s generally only people who aren’t quite up to the task who feel convinced they are. (Alain de Botton)

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. (Groucho Marx)

A group of politicians deciding to dump a President because his morals are bad is like the Mafia getting together to bump off the Godfather for not going to church on Sunday. (Russell Baker)

The Democrats are the party of government activism, the party that says government can make you richer, smarter, taller, and get the chickweed out of your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then get elected and prove it. (P. J. O’Rourke)

In politics, stupidity is not a handicap. (Napoleon)

What does our enjoyment of them and tendency to repeat them say about us?

7. Padgett argues that two biblical principles need to be applied to this discussion: “the call for the church to act as a prophetic voice to the culture,” and “the call for the church to speak with respect.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

8. As objectively as possible, state in your own words the definition, pros and cons of quietism, moderation and advocacy.

9. Padgett concludes with four questions by which we should evaluate ourselves:
Are we following the Golden Rule? Where do we get our information? How are we pushing our own ideas? Are we passing “The Dinner Test”? By this test, how do you fare? What changes in your life might you want to pray about and plan to make?

10. “The point,” Padgett says, “is that political discourse is a complicated business, and the wise road is more apt to be found by humble questions than by confident assertions.” How might relationships in the church—and without it—be transformed if we all heeded this counsel? If no one else heeds it, should we bother? Why?
[Questions by Denis Haack]