Political science and theology professors explore the political responsibility of the Christian calling.
By Sarah Nelson and Josh Towner
In early 2017, Pew Research Center reported that 18 percent of Americans trust the federal government’s actions. Additionally, there are as many debates about how involved Christians should be with politics as there are denominations of the faith.
The problem certain segments of Christians see with politics, as political science professor Andrew Bramsen explains, is that the political realm is fundamentally corrupt. Power, these Christians see, is corrupting. Bramsen also noted that democratic politics are also about compromise, a touchy idea for some.
“There’s this idea that compromise is morally bad,” he said. “I think that’s very misleading. Political compromise isn’t bad in the way morally compromising is.”
So while the Washington Post reported Nov. 9, 2016 that a majority of evangelicals voted in the 2016 election, some decide to avoid politics altogether.
Political science professor Mitchell Krumm says Christians have been involved in politics since the beginning of Christendom.
Christianity’s relationship with politics started as one of persecution. The two combined in the Middle Ages, when the church grew in power until faith reigned over politics.
Questions of the state and Christianity began to splinter when the Reformation took place. At this point in time, three categories emerged on how Christians should relate to politics. According to Krumm, the church should either reign over the state, the two can be separate kingdoms in which God can work or the church should stay out of the affairs of the state completely.
From a theological standpoint, political science chair Fred Van Geest says Christians are called to be part of the city of God rather than the city of man. The difficulty in maintaining this mentality comes largely from the inequalities of exposure between religious material and worldly material. People generally go to church once a week, which means they hear a lesson from a pastor once a week. Social media communicates messages multiple times a day every day of the week. It’s a simple matter of balancing the number of messages received.
Van Geest stresses the importance of faith formation in the Church before entering the political realm. “Our culture is very attractive in many ways,” Van Geest said. “We spend more time in getting oriented in love of country over love of God.”
With his emphasis on international relations, professor Christopher Moore noted that Christians are called to be knowledgeable about what is happening in the world.
“I don’t think we can make a case that we just put our head in the sand,” he said. “God has called us to be representatives of his grace, his kingdom and his agency here on earth. We have to do that both in domestic policy and international policy.”
The political science department agreed that identity in God must come before one’s identity in politics, which begs the question of how Jesus interacted with politics.
“I’m not comfortable saying Jesus was political,” Gary Long said as he stroked his beard. “I’m far more comfortable saying Jesus was an activist.”
Long, a professor of biblical and theological studies, uses the example of the people at the core of Jesus’ ministry to prove this point. “He’s spending time out among the people who are providing the wealth for the privileged. He’s with the poor, the sick, the non-privileged.”
Long experienced otherness while living in Israel for five years. “I meaningfully experienced people and culture that was vastly different from me,” Long said. “It made me realize there really are systems in place to limit the non-privileged.”
Long’s favorite metaphor is one from American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of a person riding an elephant. The elephant is one’s moral intuition or gut reaction, while the rider is reason and rationality. Usually the rider and elephant plod along, but whenever they see something considered morally wrong, the elephant will turn its head in disgust. Whether the cause of the elephant rearing is truly wrong takes investigating. In order to investigate, the rider needs to wrestle control over the elephant and keep the elephant on the same course.
“When I was [in college] my elephant couldn’t accept that Jimmy Carter was a Christian because he was a Democrat. Now, I would have voted for Bernie Sanders,” Long said.
The idea of controlling your elephant is at the core of Long’s philosophy. Long believes the best way to be like Jesus is by “being deliberate about getting out of our bubbles and trying to experience otherness,” Long said. Keeping the elephant on course while having foreign experiences is crucial to living like Jesus.
To live like Jesus, Van Geest said, Christians should be more invested in the city of God over the city of man.
“Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God is beyond one country,” Van Geest said. “Your heart, your loyalty and your identity has to be in that kingdom. If it clashes with your country, so be it.”