Part IV – Implementation
Chapter 16 – In the Arena: Practical Issues in Concrete Political Engagement.
By Stephen Monsma, fellow at the Center for Public Justice and a research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, Calvin College; and Mark Rodgers, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference.
Politics “…is not an area to rush into with a maximum of enthusiasm and good intentions and minimum of thought and planning.” (326) There is potential for doing great good and great harm. Good intentions must be coupled with thoughtful applications.
Living God’s Truth in a Broken World: Basic Perspectives
Monsma and Rodgers believe there are three truths that must be acknowledged when we engage in politics:
- First the sinful, broken nature of the political world.
- Second, Christians entering the political world – even when they do so prayerfully and with a passion for following their risen Lord and his Word – bring with them a burden of biased perspectives, incomplete knowledge, and their own sinfulness.
- Third, setting the context for Christian political engagement is that political activity is “downstream” of culture, and to truly shape the direction of the nation.
In response to these truths the authors believe that Christians in politics must maintain perspectives with “…a realistic understanding of the modest gains one is likely to achieve by political involvement” and “…a strong sense of humility.” (329) Especially critical is the realization of how much politics is determined by what happens “upstream” in culture.
Different Forms of Involvement
Monsma and Rodgers believe that every Christian should be involved in politics. Involement at the most basic level is being acquainted with issues and voting on them. When you have decided what issues you think are most pressing, the authors not that many find it helpful to have a set of indicator issues knowing that politicians who vote one way on a particular issue tend to vote in similar ways a on related issues. While the authors warn against single issue voting, some issues are better indicators than others of a politician’s political philosophy. Of course one important indicator is party affiliation.
The authors also note that to truly have a political impact you must join with others in political action. Joining associations that reflect your concern for issues can be a productive strategy. Some will work within a political party to achieve their ends. Finally, there is the option of running for office.
Monsma and Rodgers acknowledge that Christians who involve themselves in politics quickly discover five things (332-333):
- First, Christians quickly realize that they must advocate in the public square for their positions using “natural law” arguments that are accessible and persuasive to all.
- Second, as we discuss more fully later, it does not take Christians long, whether they work in the legislative, judicial or executive branch, to realize that to compromise on tactic or policy is not always the same as compromising on principle.
- This leads to a third challenge that we believe plagues many Christians who engage in politics inside or outside of the system – discouragement and cynicism. Many tire of compromise.
- The combination of frustration and an “us-versus-them” mentality can lead to a fourth challenge for Christians – loving your enemy.
- Finally, the greatest challenge we believe Christians who work within the political system face is to approach their vocation in an integrated way, rather than in compartmentalized, dualistic manner.
Compromise and the Christian
Monsma and Rodgers draw a distinction between what they call a “half-a-loaf” compromise and compromise resulting from losing one’s independence by the alliances one makes. Too many Christians see every political effort as an all or nothing contest while politics is usually about coalition building and making incremental change.
The compromise that concerns the authors most is where a politician becomes so beholden to a some party or faction that they lose there ability to act independently when it is needed for them to do so. This is always a danger.
Forming Alliances with Others
Monsma and Rodgers point out that politics only happens by developing collations and that often means joining forces with others with whom we differ on some issues or many issues. There is always risk involved when we do this. One possibility is that we will develop an overly dependent relationship and we will lose our independence. Another danger is that we become closely identified with partner organizations in the mind of the media and the public and lose our independent voice.
This problem is especially pronounced when we are talking about the two major political parties. The authors list three potential dangers.
- Being co-opted by a political party.
- Inadvertently, assisting factions and causes that are contrary to Christian principles.
- Becoming overly identified with one political partying the mind of the public.
The authors conclude reminding us that as Christians we have a responsibility to be engaged in the political arena.
I have always had an interest in politics. I have been deeply involved in political campaigns over the years including one US congressional campaign a decade ago. Much of this chapter rings true with me. What I particularly liked was the observation of politics being “downstream” form culture. In more recent years, I have turned my personal energies toward addressing some of the issues “upstream” though I still occasionally do various political activities.
I also thought the authors did a good job of describing the pitfalls of working in alliances. The mainline denominations like the PCUSA have been so closely aligned with Democrat politics for so long they no longer have any truly prophetic voice. They are seen as mere extensions of the Democrats. Evangelicals are flirting with the same problem with the Republicans. Examples of why we would should be on our guard are all around us.