Well, a week or so ago I became a political activist. Or, I should say, I have become more active in politics than I have ever been in my life.
Yes, it’s true, I have a new lawn ornament with somebody’s name in large, bold letters. My wife pointed out that it matches the color of the house, so that’s a plus. And I must admit that my activism ranges somewhere between “there’s an election?” to “do I have to vote?”
This time around, it’s a friend running for state senate, and we happen to live on a well traveled street, and I’m happy to give him some help getting his name out there. And whenever the primary election comes around (turns out it’s today), I’ll be glad to cast a vote for him.
But two things I would register here. First, one of the things that consistently retards my activism (what there is of it) is the red-cheeked enthusiasts going door to door like evangelists or Jehovah’s Witnesses all freaked out about what’s going on in DC or Boise. And with quivering voices asking what we shall do if so-and-so gets elected again. When people turn the primary or the election into a gospel-like do or die issue, I start thinking about taking all my signs down (all one of them). At least the JWs and the Christian evangelists are actually talking about what matters (even if the JWs are very wrong). And my point isn’t a complaint with going door to door per se, it’s more a question of priorities. Real evangelism ought to garner far more enthusiasm than elections.
Secondly, the more I think about it, the more I can’t understand how a Christian can run for office and not declare front and center that he/she is a disciple of Jesus Christ and intends to rule and serve in their office as a Christian, an ambassador of the King of the Universe. Some Christian politicians do mention that they are members of such and such Church or that they have helped in their church’s youth group, etc. and I appreciate that. But others make no mention of it at all, and their web sites are full of mumbo jumbo about “liberty” and “freedom” and “conservative” and I could really care less. What I want to know is “whose liberty?” “whose freedom?” “conserving what?” Everyone wants liberty and freedom; no one is running on the platform of tyranny and slavery.
Now some of you know that I’m something of a fanboy of Karl Barth (peace be upon him), but this is one of the places where he was just plain wrong. But even here, it was a mix. He lead the charge of the German Churches who stood up to Hitler and wrote the Barmen Declaration which spoke truth to power, and specifically, declared to the civil magistrate in the name of Jesus that the Church would not bow to any other king. Jesus was the Word of God, and all other words in heaven and earth must submit to Him. This was courageous, heroic, and a high water mark of Protestant political theology. But at the same time, Barth would argue that individual Christians ought to serve in politics as “anonymous Christians.” They ought to translate Christian morality and virtues into common parlance for their fellow citizens. And I just don’t get that. Sure, I realize that some Christians will claim the name of Christ, get elected to office, and then proceed to sleep around with all the secretaries and pageboys. Others will get elected and in the name of Christ establish injustice in the land. But at least in those cases we have all the cards out on the table. A Church that is doing its job will prosecute immorality, correct folly, rebuke insolence, etc.
But I don’t know how a Christian could pretend that political party affiliation is more fundamental then allegiance to Jesus. I don’t know how a Christian could pretend that he or she is not an ambassador of the Lord Jesus at all times. This would be something like me taking my wedding ring off on a business trip. Oh, I might say in defense, I’m just an anonymous husband. Oh good now we’re all relieved and put at ease. For a second there we thought there might be a hint of infidelity.
There will always be husbands who are unfaithful, and they will need to be called on the carpet, rebuked, and prosecuted accordingly. But it’s not better for them to perform their infidelity in the dark. It’s still infidelity. Or, to flip the analogy around, it’s a far greater victory for marriage and marital love for a husband to declare his allegiance and loyalty to his wife than for an “anonymous husband” to declare his allegiance and loyalty to the idea of “marriage”. We don’t need the idea of marriage praised and honored, we need wives who are loved and cherished and honored. Likewise, we don’t need an ooze-fest championing the ideas of liberty and freedom and conservative family values. We need men and women who know and love Jesus and are committed to obeying Him as they serve their neighbors in political office. And this doesn’t preclude a broad spectrum of argumentation, having many tools in the toolbox, as Tim Keller suggests here, but I want to start seeing and hearing politicians arguing for their positions and defending them on the basis of God’s Word. “We can’t kill babies because that’s murder, and God says we can’t do that.” “We can’t kick all the immigrants out because the Bible says that we must show hospitality and love to the strangers in our gates.” “We can’t bomb our enemies just because they’re bad; Jesus says we should look for ways to bless our enemies.”
Last, it should be clear that when I say I want Christians to serve in political office as Christians, that is not the same thing as wrapping Jesus in an American flag or draping an American flag over the cross. At best, those are just well meaning Christians who know and believe what I’m saying but who don’t realize the confusing signals they are sending. At worst it is a terrible mistake, confusing the Christian Church for the United States. At worst, it’s a form of political polygamy, while trying to convince both wives that they are really the same woman. Really, just relax.
Anyway, if you want to get me excited, if you really want me to become an activist, I’d suggest that you calmly tell people that you are a Christian, a follower of the crucified and risen Messiah, and that you would like to serve this community in political office by supporting and implementing measures based on the Bible. Of course that probably won’t get you elected, and it just might get you assassinated. But hey, I’d be willing to put your sign in my front yard. I’d probably even put up two.
Brad Littlejohn says
Thanks Toby. Balanced, pastoral, straightforward, and right-on-the-mark as always.
Davey Henreckson says
Thanks for the post, Toby. I was curious: what text of Barth are you drawing on for your description of his "anonymous" (political) Christian?
I've read Barth saying this in a few places as I recall, but I just found one place in an essay taken from Against the Stream entitled "The Christian Community and the Civil Community." I have it in my copy of Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom ed. by Clifford Green.
You'll find in that particular essay all the tensions in Barth that I reference in this post. Certain portions make me want to stand up and cheer and others make me scratch my head. Let me know what you think!
Davey Henreckson says
I'll have to take another look at my copy when we get back home to Indiana. I was curious if perhaps you're referring to Barth's idea of the "autonomous" Christian, rather than the "anonymous" Christian. I haven't been able to find reference to the latter, but – on the other hand – the former would seem to strike a different note.