A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On How the Church Is Political

In the midst of another presidential election season, I have been wondering of late what it truly means for the church to be a political alternative to the world. How does the church as alternative look in the midst of the rough-and-tumble of election year politics. In this post, the reader will no doubt see that I do not have it figured out by any stretch of the imagination, so I will be long on the problem and short on the answers; but I do not think most Christians on the political scene have this figured out either. So, with few answers and an arsenal filled with critique, allow me to think out loud and hopefully not ramble too much.

By way of setting the context, I must reveal where I stand, at the moment, on the candidates and the two "Christian" options that appear to be given to those of us who follow Jesus.

First, I greatly respect both Senators McCain and Obama. I think that they are good and decent men who desire what is best for the country. I know that neither man is perfect. Each has made decisions and statements for the sake of political expediency, each man has his imperfections; and each man has views with which I agree and with which I do not. As I have said in previous posts, it is arrogant to attack someone's character because his or her politics does not line up with mine. I try my best not to attach ulterior motives to either candidate. I will leave that to the partisan hacks on both extremes.

Second, I also have great respect for those on so-called "Religious Right" and the "Religious Left." I believe that by-and-large they want what is best for the church community and the country as a whole. There is no doubt that the "Religious Right" has had its shortcomings and has rightly deserved a fair amount of the harsh critique it has received. At the same time, however, the "Right" has not been entirely wrong in its politics and has furthered the discussion in a way that is difficult to comprehend without their presence. One wonders if the so-called "Religious Left" could now be involved in the political realm in the way that it is without the trailblazing of the "Religious Right."

This leads me to the so-called "Religious Left," who avoid the term because they want to appear as truly being an alternative to the politics of the nation-state; but like the "Religious Right" one can rightly wonder if they can be such an alternative, when it is clear they line up, for the most part, with the Democratic Party. I must confess that as I have read and reflected on the views of the Religious Left, there is no doubt that they offer an alternative to the "Religious Right," but it is by no means clear that they offer a kind of politics that can faithfully embody that polity known as "Church." Nevertheless, they are not wrong on everything, and they have highlighted important issues that have been neglected by the "Religious Right."

This brings me to James Dobson and Jim Wallis, the epitomical representatives of Christian politics from the "Right" and the "Left" respectively. As I respect Senators Obama and McCain, I have even greater respect for Jim Wallis and James Dobson. They have lived their lives faithfully, answering the call of God where God has led them. Over the years, I have learned much from both men. I have found much wise counsel in Dobson's writings and Jim Wallis acutely raised my social consciousness when I was a young college student. His book, The Call to Conversion, completely reoriented my thinking. Have I also found points of disagreement with each man? Of course, I have; but that has not diminished the admiration I have for them and the influence each has had on me, my faith, and my ministry.

And yet, as I say this, I also say respectfully that I question whether the "Religious Right" or the "Religious Left," whether James Dobson or Jim Wallis, offer the church a true political alternative to nation-state politics. While both men give us glimpses, I question whether what they are about truly embodies the Sermon on the Mount, reflects the unique polity that is the church, and provides a way to implement Kingdom politics.

James Dobson is an unashamed conservative-- of that there is no doubt. When one reads his words and listens to him speak, one is left with the clear notion that God's politics are the politics of conservatism and the Republican party (as he understands it). Can he really be serious about this? His recent inflammatory comments about Barack Obama's understanding of the diversity of Christianity was not one of his better moments. If Jesus were here today, I seriously doubt that he would be a Republican.

And while Jim Wallis is not nearly as overt in reference to his connections to the Left, all one has to do is visit his God's Politics website to know which way he clearly leans. In the top left corner of his blog there is the statement, "The monologue of the Religious Right is over and a new conversation has begun!" And yet, when one spends any time reading the posts and checking the links on the site, one wonders if he is really fostering a dialogue. It appears instead as if the monologue of the Religious Right has simply been replaced with a monologue of the Religious Left. Every site linked to God's Politics is Left-of-Center, which leaves one with the clear impression that faithful Christians will lean Left politically. I also seriously doubt that if Jesus were here he would be a Democrat.

And yet, in spite of these criticisms, I am thankful to God for both men. They have helped us think about the great issues of our time in the context of Christian faith; and I wish each of them long life so that we will continue to learn from their wisdom.

But, I cannot help but think that something is amiss in all of this. It seems as if the ghost of the Emperor Constantine is still with us. It appears as if both the "Religious Right" and the "Religious Left," James Dobson and Jim Wallis, assume that the political task of Christians is to rule, to be in charge; that the responsibility of Christians is to work to elect faithful (meaning "Left" or "Right" depending on your politics) Christians (or non-Christians who share certain views deemed as Christian) to the Oval Office and the halls of Congress. I have been wondering how all of this squares with the cross of Christ. As I said at the beginning, this post is not long on answers, but if I may quote myself as I say on more than a few occasions to my seminary students, "I do not know the answer, but I know something is not right."

But this I most definitely do know-- It is not a question of whether or not the church should be political; Jesus was crucified for treason with good reason. It is not a question of whether, but of how the church should be political. And while both Wallis and Dobson help us think through the "how," I am doubtful that ultimately they are helpful, because what they are about is too wrapped up in the politics of the nation-state that is passing away. The more I work through this, the more I am coming to believe that the church should marginalize its agenda of control and recover once again the central signficance of the politics of witness. It is God and not the nations who rules the world; it is the church that is the most significant polity in human history, as it uniquely bears witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the ghost of Constantine remains with us. Perhaps it is time for an exorcism.

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Cross-Posted at RedBlueChristian


elm said...


This is a wonderful post. It's fair, balanced, and keeps the main thing the main thing. I admit that I have often taken a reactionary stance against the Right because of the exploitation of its faults. But you are correct, we need to be something different entirely. Which makes me wonder, could someone truly be Christian and truly be President? What if their faith convictions contradict their obligation of office?

Anonymous said...

Something amiss? Why but of course! Constantine was not the first or last politician to seek to coop the Church for his own secular agenda. Dobson and Wallis not withstanding, Christians should do everything possible to elect those candidate who will further the Christian agenda.

As to how we are to accomplish this, there is no mystery. We get out of the pew and into the ballot box, ie., we vote. In the process of campaigning we expect and insist upon candidates speaking plainly to our concerns This means more than simply listening to sound bites and giving attention to their photo ops. It means seriously engaging, think and coming to a conclusion as to which candidate will can be best trusted to act in a way that will accord with our faith.

Anonymous said...

Great post Allan! I do not have any sure answers either. I do have some questions. Why can't the greatest wealth producing nation in the history of the world figure out how to care for children and senior citizens? It is so much easier to point out what is wrong than to point out how to fix it.

Allan R. Bevere said...


A good question-- I remember being at a conference some twenty years ago and listening to the late John Howard Yoder. He was asked the very same question as to whether or not a truly faithful Christian could be elected president. His response-- He/she could be elected, but would likely not be reelected.


Thanks for your comments.

It seems to me that your project will ensure the continued co-opting of the church. Also whatever it is that you mean by "Christian agenda" will not be the agenda of other Christians. Working through that is an impossible task.


Good questions and loaded ones as well. We certainly have the wealth, but what does it mean to care and by what vehicles? Is it primarily the government? The private sector? Both? And in what way do we care? Just giving money? Giving incentives to the private sector to expand business that creates more jobs? What about more government regulation?

There is a reason why no country, no matter how prosperous, has eliminated poverty and neglect. It is a difficult matter. Of course, that does not mean we should not try. We should do everything possible to assist those in great need. At times we know how to do that, and at others times the problem defies a workable solution.

The question I have is why doesn't the church be more of the kind of community God has called it to be in order to deal more directly with the issues that concern you and me? Could part of the problem be that we think government is best capable of dealing with these things, therefore, we will pay our taxes and expect them to take care of the problem, then we as the church can continue on with business as usual?

Again, that is not to deny that government nor the private sector has a place in all of this, but have Christians proceeded on the assumption that government plays the central role in which the church assists, when it should be the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Allan, as usual you have very insightful ways of expanding the existing questions. I know my question is a loaded political question. I don't want it to be. Ah, young, innocent and live in a simple world. It never works out that way. I really like your emphasis about the church being the church w/o being used for political party aims. To address issues that exist throughout society we need all parts of society involved. Private, government and Churches. Roles and boudaries are very complex questions. I am sitting on the govenor's anti-poverty task force. It is very enlightening to watch how the different groups invited tend to turn simple brain storming exercises into exercises that serve only the interest from which they come. Social workers could fix everything if they had a new program and staff to run it. Churches challenged that assumption. The government folk did not really care about the outcome. They simply wanted the process to work.
The Church should embrace the role of prophet when it comes to justice in America. The church should also embrace the role of servant to our society.
You asked about the role of regulation in America. Since the days of Bill Clinton our country has pushed deregulation. It has worked to some extent, with some glaring excesses. The Enron accounting scandal, the mortgage crisis, the open buying and selling of legislation, candidates, and the judicial system call for some form of regulatory response. The enron accounting scandal directly effects how I manage the Urban Mission. Our work is harder in that more detailed records than ever are required. I do not think the regulatory response was designed to affect charities. Yet, it did. So I am hesitant to ask for too much of a response. The mortgage crisis is simply too big to not regulate in some manner. For the most part our ills revolve around greed. I am not sure you can regulate greed out of our markets.
Thanks for your response and questions.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good words here, Allan, and when I get more time, I'll go over this more. I'm strugglig on this issue to some extent, right now.

Dale said...


This a great post. I discovered upon reading it, via a link from some other blog, that I had TOTALLY misread you due to some stupid pre-judgment I made about something I saw on Blue Christian, which was an arrogant, judgmental thing for me to do.

I put this post on my Google Shared Items which I have only begun to start using this past week. You can see mine at Dale's Shared Items

You are now on my RSS List. I'm also on the Methoblogroll as Theoblogical

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your comments. They are greatly appreciated.

Please drop me an email. My address is arbevere@yahoo.com. I would like to chat with you.

DLW said...

I enjoyed it too.

I am now blogging again, this time at "A New Kind of Third Party", instead of the Anti-Manichaeist.

I have liked to call Wallis as effectively calling for the dueling monologues and I question whether he is simply repeating his bad strategy of 2004 in calling on people to vote for poverty.

It seems unlikely that poverty will ever be a key issue in a US presidential election given the fact that the poor don't vote and so many of us have such flimsy voting habits.

This is why I've focused on anti-gerrymandering which I believe will inevitably help the poor.