Thinking about Christians in politics: 'Usual suspects' labels just don't work, do they?


Stop and think about the following for a moment.

What political label would you stick on a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox person who believed all of his or her church’s moral and social teachings, as they are being articulated in this day and age?

Let’s list some of the crucial issues. Abortion and related “life issues” — such as euthanasia — would have to be mentioned. Many Catholics, including people frequently called “conservatives” (take me, for example), would include the death penalty in the “life issue” list. Then there would be the defense of the sacrament of marriage, as defined throughout Judeo-Christian history, and the belief that sex outside of marriage — for gays and straights — is a sin.

Now, there are other issues that are commonly linked to a “whole life” approach to the public square — such as immigration, the environment, medical care, economic justice, racial equality, etc. Traditional believers in the ancient churches may debate the fine details of some of these issues, but my point is that it is often hard to stick conventional political labels on the conclusions reached by these Christians.

So, where do you put someone who is pro-life, and favors national health care (with conscience clauses built in)? This person is pro-immigration reform and leans “left” on the environment. She is a strong defender of the First Amendment — both halves of that equation. Are we talking about a Democrat or a Republican?

After the chaos of the past couple of weeks, this is a timely and newsworthy topic for a think piece. Of course, the “lesser of two evils” debates surrounding Donald Trump also fit into this picture. Thus, I saved a recent New York Times op-ed by the Rev. Timothy Keller — founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian network of churches in New York City — for this occasion. The double-decker headline proclaims:

How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t

The historical Christian positions on social issues don’t match up with contemporary political alignments


Here is Keller’s overture:

What should the role of Christians in politics be? More people than ever are asking that question. Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply “preach the Gospel.” Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.

The Bible shows believers as holding important posts in pagan governments — think of Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament. Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.

Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one.


Keller has a number of reasons for say that the “package deals” offered by both Republicans and Democrats — we’ll help you on this issue, but then demand that you accept this, this and this — leave religious believers trapped. It’s hard to stay biblical when there are people insisting that, “If you are not with me, then you’re against me.

I’ll let you read Keller’s arguments and decide what you think.

However here is a nice anecdote that rings true, for me, since I frequently speak in settings in which there are Christians from Africa, Asia and elsewhere. For example, it makes me furious when I see journalists suggest that African Christians are honorary Republicans because most of them are doctrinal conservatives on marriage and sex.

Let us attend:

I know of a man from Mississippi who was a conservative Republican and a traditional Presbyterian. He visited the Scottish Highlands and found the churches there as strict and as orthodox as he had hoped. No one so much as turned on a television on a Sunday. Everyone memorized catechisms and Scripture. But one day he discovered that the Scottish Christian friends he admired were (in his view) socialists. Their understanding of government economic policy and the state’s responsibilities was by his lights very left-wing, yet also grounded in their Christian convictions. He returned to the United States not more politically liberal but, in his words, “humbled and chastened.” He realized that thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call, could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies.

Read it all.

The Times piece ends with a note that this essay was adapted from Keller’s book, “Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy.

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