In Beyond Left and Right, you sought to transcend the back and forth partisanship we experience in our political system. But critics might say that partisanship is an essential part of American democracy. Is it?
American government would be possible without political parties; indeed, the framers thought they had created a party-less system. But I do think political parties enhance American democracy in very important ways. Parties serve many constructive purposes such as helping unify like-minded individuals, helping organize and simplify elections, and helping structure governing institutions.
Partisanship, on the other hand, refers to strong devotion to party, even to the point of bias. Almost all elected officials identify with one party or the other, and many voters do as well. But connection to or identification with a party can become an end in and of itself. I find this type of extreme partisanship problematic, especially for followers of Christ. Our devotion belongs to Christ and Christ alone.
Some such as James Davidson Hunter advocate a “time out” on politics, so perhaps the church and reset itself. What is your opinion of this approach?
I don’t support this approach as a one-size-fits-all answer, but I do think that some people and organizations might benefit from following Hunter’s advice. We have seen ministries and groups get so engrossed in trying to “change the world” through political advocacy that they have lost focus and grounding on their true purpose in serving the gospel. Hunter’s proposal that we stop trying so hard to change the world and focus our efforts on serving as a faithful presence is a useful corrective.
But many will find that they are called to political engagement as a means of loving God and neighbor, and I see this as a worthy and important calling. I believe our political system would benefit greatly if more Christians invested in it.
Your recent article in Christianity Today and your forthcoming book, Honoring God in Red and Blue, Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason urges Christians not to disengage, but to watch the tone in which they engage. Why is this so important?
Much contemporary political debate is nasty, scornful, and arrogant. Distortion is commonplace. Many people are turned off from political engagement because it seems so ugly, and who can blame them? Politics need not be about derision or scoring points at someone else’s expense, but it usually is.
The way in which we engage in politics is a reflection of our character. We are called to exhibit the fruits of the spirit in all our interactions, in politics as in every other area of life.
Given the tone of contemporary politics, imagine the witness we could have for Christ if we as Christians made deliberate decisions to pattern another way of political engagement. What a way to show forth the light!
Seems politics is the one arena where Christians are so quick to check their Christianity at the door, especially when it comes to gossip, slander, and demonizing. Why do you think this is?
I do see many examples of Christians who seem to forget (or ignore) their witness as soon as they start talking about politics. Paul contrasts the fruits of the spirit with the acts of the flesh. The list Paul exhorts us to avoid includes “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” Those terms are apt descriptors of much of what we see in everyday politics.
Some people apply the logic that the ends justify the means. That is, they will argue that they are pursuing godly ends and that it is necessary to play by the rules of the game to succeed in politics. The problem, from my perspective, is that we cannot and should not separate ends and means. We are not called to success; we are called to faithfulness.
Others appear to get caught up in the drama and excitement and mirror the behaviors that they see around them. This is a common temptation in politics as in so many other areas of our life.
Do you think the millennial generation approaches politics differently than their parents and if so, how?
Analysis of survey data suggests a few ways in which millennials approach politics differently than their parents. For one, members of the younger generation are more likely to be concerned about a broader range of issues than their parents. They also have a very different relationship with technology. As you would expect, millennials are much more likely to follow politics and current events through social media and less likely to read newspapers than their parents. This differential in use of media sources may also lead to differences in their understanding of and interaction with political issues.