Thinking About...Politics

It’s just over a month until Election Day. That means several things: 1) TV watching in a battleground state like Virginia will become unbearable because of all the political ads; 2) emails requesting campaign contributions will only become more incessant; and 3) my endorsements ex cathedra from the City Church pulpit are coming soon. Okay, so the last of those items isn’t true. Nonetheless, the impending election has me thinking about our political moment. Specifically, it has me thinking about a hopeful, public faith conducted with civility at the local level.

Public Faith

I’ve never been a political junkie. I am bored by talking heads debating policy. As a pastor I’ve intentionally avoided taking partisan stands on candidates. I believe in a church united under the blood and by the Spirit of Christ, not through political affiliation. But I was helpfully challenged a few weeks ago by a blog post from Skye Jethani, who differentiates between being political and being partisan. He claims that pastors should be political, specifically in showing how the Bible guides the people of God to act in their common life together. He issues a call pastors “to engage the communal and social implications of the gospel rather than retreat into a hyper-individualized faith with no vision for the common good or application in the public square.” 

Relatedly, a group of Christians have launched a movement called Public Faith aimed at catalyzing civic participation that moves beyond the moribund culture wars to foster engagement for the common good. They state: “We do not presume that there is one Christian way to vote, but we believe strongly that Christians should not leave their faith outside of the voting booth.” I agree. Our churches and our country need public faith. Faith that goes to the voting booth with deeply held belief. Our political arena need not be (in Father Neuhaus’ famous phrase) a naked public sphere, shed of all belief. It should be a public space where various perspectives are welcomed to robustly compete for the hearts and minds of other people.

Conducted with Civility

Public faith also requires civility. The degeneration of political conversation concerns me. Most contemporary political rhetoric is uncharitable, biting, and rude. Civility requires us to acknowledge that good, well-meaning people of faith can disagree on issues and candidates. There is no single way for people of faith to vote. I’m weary of statements like “A vote for X is really a vote for Y” which are logically untrue and seek to impugn the consciences of others.

I’m concerned that we have forgotten how to talk with people with whom we disagree–and that we simply don’t want to. We’ve come to love our polarized echo chambers of bias and spin. Meanwhile many of our political leaders are poor examples of the civil discourse that might lead to substantive solutions. They’re too busy trying to deliver soundbite-cum-burns. Following their lead, instantly we are ready with outrage and scorn. Our cynicism—eagerly fed by the sarcastic chum of "The Daily Show" or "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver"—renders dialogue all but impossible.

At the Local Level

Another important dimension to public faith in our political moment is involvement at the local level. As Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local.” This is always true, but even more relevant during a year when many voters are dis-spirited about the options for President. Rather than throwing our hands up at the whole situation, we must see the critical importance of the down ticket races—Mayor, City Council, School Board. Particularly this year in Richmond—one of the few municipalities with an election as salacious as the national one—local races matter.

I’m encouraged by the apparent interest in local politics evidenced by participation at events like last week’s Mayorathon which drew crowds necessitating overflow rooms. I’m likewise encouraged by movements to catalyze civic involvement at School Board meetings, City Council meetings, and public transit meetings. I’m optimistic this is not simply quadrennial political enthusiasm but true momentum towards ongoing political participation at city, district, and neighborhood levels.

Hope Beyond This Polis

Even though it’s the first word in my thesis sentence above, I saved hope for last. It’s the most important. Politics is concerned with life in this polis (the Greek word for city). But the Christian hope is always aimed beyond this present city. As my friend and fellow Richmond pastor, Corey Widmer, wrote recently in a reflection on a similar topic, “Our hope for our world is no man, no ideology, no policy, but in the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Indeed, the Christian hope is in the God-man. The Christian hope is in a new heavens and a new earth. The Christian hope is in the polis of God. As the apostle Paul writes in Philippians to Christians like us struggling to live faithfully in the face of an often hostile empire: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior…” And: “Therefore live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

Only the Christian hope—a hope beyond this polis—steadies us and guides us to the great and everlasting city of God.