(Photo: Amy Black)
Christians need to do a better job of honoring God in their political activism, argues Amy Black, associate professor of political science at Wheaton College, in her new book, Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason.
The book could be used as a resource for small groups, or for Christians wishing to learn more about the U.S. political system and how to get involved in politics in a way that honors God. In an interview with The Christian Post, Black talks about the origins of her book, what she thinks about compromise in politics, and how Christians honoring God in their political activism could change American politics.
The following is an edited transcript of that interview:
CP: Why did you write this book?
Black: My book came out of an adult education class I taught at my church and from my work teaching at a Christian college. I recognized that many thoughtful Christians didn't know as much about the political process as they thought they needed to be active participants and a lot of folks wanted a basic primer about how it all worked.
I'm also concerned about the tone of contemporary politics. There's so much attack, so much exaggeration and distortions, sometimes even done in the name of Christ. I want to call Christians to a different approach. I want to encourage them to be humble instead of arrogant, and to show that we can disagree and still be gracious. In other words, I want us to be humble and thoughtful witnesses for Christ.
CP: At the end of each chapter you have review questions. How did you intend for this book to be used?
Black: I see it working in multiple ways. My first audience would be Christians who are interested in politics and want to understand how it works better. Another audience is the Christian who is so frustrated in what they see in contemporary politics that they don't want to have anything to do with it. Either of those readers, the person who is interested in politics and the person who is disgusted with politics, I hope can read the book and get some insight into a little bit about how our process works, but also some ways to get beyond the negativity that is so common in our discussion.
I also see the book as something that is useful for small groups. As I said, the idea for the book came out of teaching an adult education class and I saw how it worked to spur conversation. So, I wanted to book to be a resource for adult education classes, small groups, even pastors who might want to work in groups reading through and thinking about some of the concepts. I included the discussion questions to help people who want to read through it together, to move them into a stimulating and, hopefully, constructive discussion about both their differences as well as their commonalities when they think about politics.
CP: Oftentimes, small group leaders, pastors and other church leaders avoid discussing politics for fear of turning people off. What would your advice be to these leaders?
Black: My first response would be, you're right to be concerned. So many times our discussions of politics get so heated so quickly and people aren't really interested in listening, talking with one another and learning from one another as much as they're hoping to score points and win arguments.
As much as it can be discouraging to talk about politics in our current environment, as much as it might make sense to stay away, I would encourage pastors and small group leaders and others to delve into it anyway, aware of the peril but also trying to redirect the conversation in positive ways.
When we think about government and we think about politics, which is our interaction with government, this is one of many ways in which we can live out God's call to love our neighbor. Politics is a means in which we can serve the common good and have an effective Christian witness.
But, we need to learn how to engage in politics and talk about politics in ways that encourage people and don't turn them off. So, where better to practice these skills and to learn how to talk well about politics than within our churches, within our small groups, so that when we interact with our Christian or our non-Christian neighbor we can be acting in a way that is a much more positive Christian witness.
CP: On page 39 you write, "we can uphold truth and make political compromises." I've heard some Christians suggest that a political compromise is the same as compromising their principles. What would you say to those who feel this way?
Black: I agree that we need to be very careful about compromising principles. And I don't want anyone to think that I'm telling them to compromise their principles. However, politics is ultimately about compromise in the sense that it is about coming together, searching for a solution with different individuals with different interests seeking a way forward. Everyone comes with their ideals and no one usually leaves 100 percent pleased. But, through compromise and bargaining, people can find a way that moves in a positive direction even if it doesn't reach the end goal.
I think that's where this conflict over "compromise" gets confusing to people. We should have an end goal in mind and we should not lose sight of that end goal, but if we support policies and programs that work toward our end goal and not away from our end goal, we're moving in the right direction. So my view is that a compromise that moves us toward that goal upholds that principle and gets us moving in the right direction. Whereas, to say, "I cannot work with you, I cannot compromise with you, I'm not willing to be at the table," makes it harder to get anything accomplished. So, if we want to work through government (and it may not be wise to work through the government on every issue), that process is about bargaining, that process is about compromise, and that's the only way it really works.
CP: If Christians are thoughtfully studying scripture and studying political issues together, getting all the relevant information, should they come to the same conclusions, or should Christians expect that they will disagree on political issues?
Black: I don't think that Christians will necessarily reach the same conclusions about the best means of achieving a goal, but, I think, as we study scripture we will agree on the end goal. This is where I think people get so confused.
We can read the Bible, for example, and say, "what does God tell us about poverty?" and, it is so clear. More than 3,000 verses, you get a sense that God deeply cares for the poor, that we are to care for the poor as well, that we are to meet the needs of the poor, that this is an essential priority in God's kindgom. The problem is those same verses don't necessarily lead us to an exact path to do that. So we have lots of disagreements over the best policy to help alleviate the suffering of the poor. This is where ideology comes in; this is where differences begin to mount.
I don't expect all Christians will come up with the exact same public policy solutions in the same way I would expect those who study scripture to come to a similar agreement about God's goal, God's heart – that is, his concern for the poor and his call for us to care for them.
CP: If Christians did a better job of honoring God in their political activism, how might that change American politics in general?
Black: I think it would be nothing short of transformative. In my view, so much of what we see in contemporary politics is hateful and dishonoring to the Kingdom. If Christians entered the political sphere trying to live out the fruits of the spirit, if they demonstrated patience and kindness and love and gentleness in the way in which they approached politics, people would have to stand back and notice. That would make a difference because it would be so counter to all of the norms of political conversations today.
I'm not certain that Christians are going to win the day on all of their issues, but I also don't think that should be the end goal. The end goal needs to be honoring God, to be an effective witness, to show, first, love for God and then love for neighbor. We need to do that in our demeanor, in how we approach politics, just as we should approach everything else in our lives.