Engaging in Politics the Christian Way?

Lessons Learned From the Religious Right

With the 2012 presidential race already taking shape, the question again is arising on how Christians should engage in politics and do so without losing sight of their faith.

Former George W. Bush advisers Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner would argue that Christians have an obligation to be involved in politics. At the same time, they caution against making God secondary to a political cause.

"When Christians get involved in politics, sometimes the cause can take precedent over your savior," Wehner said in an interview with Focus on the Family this week.

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"Mike and I have seen that. We've experienced the temptations of it. We've seen Christians get involved and they're worried there's a sense that everything depends on them."

"We're called to be faithful, not to be victorious. We have to remember that."

Wehner and Gerson are the authors of City of Man: Religion and Politics in the New Era. In the book, they reflect on history and call evangelicals to a new kind of political engagement that involves learning from the mistakes of the Religious Right from the 1970s and 80s.

"One of the main issues ... is really an issue of tone," said Gerson in the interview. "Some of the rhetoric of the Religious Right was desperate, even apocalyptic – 'American was on the verge of collapse; America was being dominated by enemies of the faith.' Good for fundraising but not for democracy."

A tone of grace and civility is one that Christians particularly should have.

"We believe in universal dignity, human dignity rooted in the image of God possessed by every other human being," said Gerson. "If we mistreat someone else and treat them unfairly, we're actually undermining that belief."

Another lesson to learn from the fading Religious Right movement, the authors noted, is not to identify with one party.

Wehner recalled speaking with the wife of a minister who is well-known today when the couple was starting a church in a big city. She informed him of the trouble they were having in trying to draw young people to the church. The young people were resistant to attending and also less open to Christianity because they associated Christianity to the Religious Right and to a particular political agenda, Wehner remembered her saying.

"When Christianity is viewed as an appendage, a subordinate to a political party, a political movement, that can be problematic," Wehner commented.

Gerson also warned, "When any religious movement becomes too closely identified with one ideology, there's a risk of just becoming a tool in someone else's power game."

So what issues should Christians look out for when engaging in politics?

Gerson listed three basic principles that should educate Christians' decisions:

1. Justice – how a society treats the poor, weak and vulnerable
2. Order – a primary purpose of government is to prevent evil men from doing evil things
3. Mediating institutions – the government should respect the family, the community and the church and not intervene

On the role of the church, Wehner doesn't believe politics should be preached from the pulpit.

"I think the missions are very distinct between government and [church]," he noted. "When you begin to weigh in on a whole array of public policy issues, I think that you can get into a real thicket.

"Ministers have to remember that their congregants are liberals and conservatives. A lot of times, the message of the Gospel of Christ, the salvation message can be obscured or set aside when politics gets involved."

In the end, what Christians should remember is that that live in the city of man but they’re also citizens of the city of God. One’s Christian faith “should inform the values and priorities that we bring to everything we do in the city of man,” said Gerson.

Gerson currently writes a nationally syndicated column that appears in The Washington Post. Wehner is currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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