Can We Navigate Politics With Integrity and Civility?

Apr 24, 2017 |Josh M. Shepherd
boy yelling into microphone

When it comes to discussing important cultural issues, here are five ways Christians can find a better way forward.

We live in a divided nation. Leading social surveys reveal a nearly 50/50 ideological divide, especially on matters of politics and religion. When you love people and all their diverse perspectives, seeing walls of rage and misunderstanding build up is disheartening.

In such an environment, even honest, diligent efforts to speak truth in humility can explode. I've seen it happen firsthand.

When Social Media Exposes the Worst in Us

This past October, when partisan tensions had nearly peaked before the election, a friend and I attempted to seek out common ground on the difficult issues surrounding race relations.

A black woman who'd given over a decade of service to pro-life ministries had been listening to the recent hurts overwhelming her peers in the black community. Violent incidents kept piling up, yet most pro-life leaders remained silent.

After months of prayer, she felt ready to write something significant to help mend bonds of trust where relationships had ripped apart. As her editor, I pitched the story and got the green light from one of the top right-leaning websites.

Her article finally published online. A few leaders affirmed her discerning views, including a CNN reporter. Then, exposing attitudes that made her and me ashamed to be called conservative, hundreds of comments came pouring in:

You're an idiot.

I want absolutely nothing to do with black people anymore. I am completely sick and tired of their racist [insert expletive here].

For those outside the black community, high black abortion rates have improved our nation.

As King Theoden shouted mournfully in The Lord of the Rings: "What can men do against such reckless hate?"

The Long, Hard Work of Bridge-Building

For eight years now I've lived in the Washington D.C. area and have attempted to make sense of the complex politics driving America, the richest superpower in world history. So many of my friends work for the government that I'd rather understand what they do than be clueless. Asking many questions, along with working at places like The Heritage Foundation, has established a years-long, still-unfinished process of piecing together how it all works.

Meanwhile, our nation — including people of faith — has become more angry, partisan and unhappy about politics. It seems God's desire for justice in public policy, or what the Old and New Testaments say about the right role of government, isn't driving how we see the world.

As Christians, we can do better than this. There is a way to stop coloring every issue in red and blue crayons, making one or the other "the good guys." Reacting with cynicism, panic, or stalwart defense of every government action will only lead us to exhaustion.

That said, a vibrant faith in Jesus will lead us to truths neither popular nor easy. For the witness of the gospel, not to mention our own sanity, it's vital we recognize the assault on integrity and civility in our daily political discourse — and seek to change it. Here are five practical ideas for changing the conversation.

1. Open your Bible and ask God to reveal how He sees government.

Most of us begin to take a greater interest in politics in our 20s and 30s when things such as tax returns, health care costs, mortgages, and the DMV make us realize how much government affects our lives.

Our motivation is essentially selfish: how much I pay the IRS, the injustice of this or that policy against my family, my property, and my rights. But if our Christian faith is alive and informed by the Bible, self-interest cannot be our sole driving force. We are to consider the needs of others.

Jesus tells us it's the meek, marginalized, and persecuted who will be exalted. They're the ones who receive special attention in His upside-down kingdom. Jesus delivers this message clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, which Bible teacher Mike Bickle calls "the constitution of the kingdom of God."

He says further, "Jesus calls us to live with a liberated heart that is free from the spirit of revenge, defensiveness, and entitlement and their continual petty complaints against those they relate to." Bickle concludes, "We can only do this if we see the big picture of receiving Jesus' love and mercy."

How do we change? It may sound cliché, but spending time in prayer — with the Bible open before us — can begin to help us rightly divide what is true and false. The Gospels are a good place to start to understand how God views government. Then consider the prophet Isaiah and the book of Esther.

"God loves government," states author Matt Lockett as he expounds on Psalm 2. "In fact, according to Romans 13, no human governing authority exists without His express permission and purpose." The point here is that God has a redemption plan for nations, even if none of us can fully comprehend it.

First and foremost, read the Bible and pray to connect with our ultimate authority, Jesus. This sacred time is an entryway into His bigger global story; don't be afraid of it. Because the Holy Spirit dwells in you, God will help you see specific ways to act justly and love mercy — perhaps through your church or government, or perhaps by planting seeds of faith in small, unseen ways.

Truths revealed in Scripture are relevant to present-day issues. And executing biblical principles faithfully leads to the most good for all people, including those vulnerable and excluded who are close to God's heart.

2. Engage with the great debates and rethink party lines.

The subject of politics is vast: thousands of years of history across hundreds of regimes and nations. Triumph is often overshadowed by great tragedies.

Using America as the example, to think we've progressed to political parties where either lines up perfectly with biblical truth or justice flatly denies our brokenness and history. "Left wing, right wing — the whole bird's sick!" observes prayer leader Will Ford.

Maybe your family or church has always identified with a certain party or political ideology. Walking on God's path will likely mean sacrifice and humility, two hallmarks of being a Christian. It also means learning: loving the Lord with your mind.

Have I engaged in political discourse at only a surface level? Guilty as charged. I've discovered that the best I can do is realize what I don't know, and be curious enough to hear out perspectives different from my own. Professor Wayne Grudem provides a helpful overview of six ways Christians have approached politics in recent decades, rich with Scripture and a larger context.

While I'm strongly pro-life and largely conservative in my views, my study — and now friendships — across the political aisle have shown me that neither party approaches issues such as racial reconciliation, immigration, or moral obligation to refugees with much biblical thinking. I'm not saying I have it all figured out, but it's clear that toeing the party line often ties your hands.

Those politicos who live for the party conventions every four years can have insights about the political players and process, it's true. But when I see a friend driven to constantly discredit opponents, it weighs on my conscience. It's not God's way.

An alternative is to seek out policy experts and commentators who engage honestly with the other side. How Jeanne Mancini talks about the life-or-death issues surrounding crisis pregnancy and abortion has altered my perspective.

When Pastor Ed Stetzer writes on the family impact of immigration policies, clearly it's coming from a heart of Christian care. And what Jonathan Tremaine Thomas says in Facebook videos about race relations speaks volumes, because he and his family moved to Ferguson years ago to be agents of healing. Wise, compassionate, informed leaders exist on every issue.

Find voices committed to truth, those who mourn injustice on the issues God has placed on your heart. Read their books, watch them on YouTube or C-SPAN, attend public events, search out their Facebook posts, and ask questions when you don't understand. I have found that learning is an ongoing process, and not always an easy one. I seek to know my core convictions in the political realm, yet remain open to new views that may critique, rebuke, and sharpen my own.

3. Recognize the complexity and personal dimensions of many policy issues.

Due to the world, the flesh, and the devil — go ahead, throw in your church and family, too — every person has been hurt and preyed upon in unique ways that lead to fears, hang-ups and brokenness.

A myriad of life experiences motivate and shape people, each made in the image of God. It requires particular grace to create helpful dialogue when a person's identity is entangled with issues that play out in public policy: race, immigration status, sexuality, and poverty (among others).

Too often we Christians load up our "truth gun" and fire away — particularly on social media, where comments live forever. Writing in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul takes a different approach: "I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." It's a fine line, being in the world but not of it.

Recognizing others' diverse life experiences, Paul isn't eager to carelessly attack people and the movements they align with. If I post a generalization about the black community, I'll probably offend someone who will never listen to me again — not to mention be a poor witness to the truth, likely more complex than my preconceived ideas.

Even a benign issue like reforming the federal budget requires sensitivity; consider all the grandparents who subsist off their small monthly Social Security checks. Politics is a minefield. Sometimes I check my tone against the fruit of the Spirit: Are these words loving? Peaceful? Is self-control evident?

It's not about political correctness, but rather seeking to actually accomplish good. Starting with basic respect and assuming the best of others' motives is key to productive dialogue. "In humility count others more significant than yourselves," says Philippians 2:3.

Sometimes trust breaks down, and we need to push back against deceptive, malign forces. Believers in the public square should at times call out ideologies and behaviors that are destructive, unbiblical, and hypocritical. But if battle is your only mode, don't count on accomplishing much.

4. Choose your news media diet wisely.

Back in 2009, I pulled up stakes in Colorado and moved to the D.C. area for a few reasons. One of those was a question I had: Beyond the entertainers on talk radio and TV who tell only half the story, is it possible to really understand politics?

The answer is yes, but not easily. Working in Congress and making friends with people from diverse backgrounds helps one to see media bias, left and right; I am certainly still susceptible to it.

Following this unprecedented election year, I wrote an article about seven news sources that stood out as generally trustworthy. I rely on sources such as these in sum, as no one outlet can be fully trusted. (Don't even get me started on how much time is wasted and needless fear generated by conspiracy theories and sharply edited YouTube videos.)

Gradually, discussions around thorny issues have changed my habits around news, analysis, and how to speak online. Years ago, if a favorite songwriter ranted on his blog about how America isn't a Christian nation nor has it ever been, I would share that at face value, unaware of any loaded ideas lurking in it.

Today, I know a religion scholar who happened to write a response to the music artist. And on a flight back home not long ago, I decided to take time and tune in to an hour-long talk on "Religious Liberty and the Founding of America" with 42 footnotes referenced.

There is always a deeper level of information and analysis, on both the left and right. Which leads us to …

5. Seek out common ground.

"As peacemakers, we are to seek to bring peace and not stoke the flames of fiery arguments. We must put biblical conviction above our political opinions," states Bible teacher Mike Bickle in a recent message.

Desiring to forge peace amid chaos does not mean we'll be conflict-free: Jesus, David, and Moses are only three examples of people who took a righteous stand in bold contrast to the culture around them.

Yet their approach to leadership was inviting others into their God-directed journey rather than shaming people, name-calling, narcissism, or disrespecting authorities.

Many friends don't share the convictions I have regarding injustices faced by minorities in America, young women preyed on by the abortion industry, refugees, or what it looks like to "act justly and love mercy" in these situations. Yet I remain curious why people believe what they do, and try to be respectful of differing views. There's always a story, often a surprising one.

Statesman Otto von Bismarck once uttered a phrase quoted often in the halls of Congress: "Politics is the art of the possible." By vilifying anyone who doesn't hold the same beliefs, it closes off solutions that come through civil dialogue.

Be Winsome, and Perhaps You'll Win Some

Much of the ugliest discourse this past year came from self-proclaimed Christians. We all have some repenting to do. As impassioned as political debate can get, personal insults and fear mongering should have no place — especially among believers.

"Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith," says Galatians 6:10. Rather than assuming the worst of others, seek to understand how friends arrive at their wildly different conclusions. Even if I cannot affirm someone's views, I can recognize the values that led them there.

For applauding some of President Obama's decisions over eight years, fellow conservatives gave me a lot of flack. But my action came from a place of praying for the President, despite his worldview conflicting with my own. When we refuse to escalate a discussion with vengeful smugness, the prophetic voice of truth can be heard more clearly.

"There is a God whose heart is full of love for every one of us, and we are all sinners," says Pastor Jack Hayford about prayer and politics. "He calls for us to pray for those who lead us, irrespective of where they are or what our opinions about them are, because it is only in the prayers of God's people that there is hope for any nation." In my home church in the D.C. area, I've seen it's possible to lift up candidates across the political spectrum in heartfelt prayers for wisdom and protection.

Every politician will disappoint us at some point, yet this must not keep us from being involved in government. As the first part of Galatians 6:10 states: "As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone." Engaging in the public square with God's wisdom and grace is a prime way to accomplish exactly what we ultimately want: good for all.

Copyright 2017 Josh M. Shepherd. All rights reserved. 

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