Politics Beyond Partisanship: A Christian Approach to Civic Life

“The great thing about American politics,” a friend once said to me, “is that it allows us to debate all two ideas a person could ever have about a particular issue.”

For decades, partisan competition in the US has been increasingly characterized by a confrontational, zero-sum mindset: Get in line and support the team, or get out of the way. It’s a simple message that makes it easier to organize voters at the presidential level, where one of two candidates will be elected by a diverse coalition of interest groups spread out across the country. But it’s a bad way to foster healthy participation in a representative democracy. And it’s a heretical way for a Christian to think, speak and act.

Christians can’t get out of the way.

Christians have a spiritual obligation to respond to the problems our neighbors say they face. Over and over again, the Old Testament tells us that God hears the cries of the people that usually get ignored, and those cries move his heart. To imitate Christ is to imitate someone who was so moved by the problems of the world that he took those problems on himself when he didn’t have to. Our faith calls us to listen for the people who are crying, who are broken-hearted or left behind or abused, draw toward them, and offer them foretastes of the comfort and honor and justice that they can expect to enjoy when Jesus returns.

And unless we live by a hollowed-out, incomplete vision of scripture, responding to the cries of the people around us can’t stop at offering spiritualized condolences and direct charity. In every genre of biblical literature, the biblical writers show that they are simultaneously concerned with both the interpersonal and the institutional expressions of sin and brokenness. Yes, the law, the prophets, the gospels and the letters tell us to forgive those who have harmed us and make restitution to those we have harmed. They tell us to directly care for the widow, the orphan, the poor and the foreigner. But they also condemn entire tribes, cities and nations for unjust laws and unfair cultural practices. And they promise that when Jesus returns, he won’t just make each of us perfect—he’ll also bear the government on his shoulders, giving us better institutions than we have in this already-but-not-yet age.

Being witnesses that testify to the reality and the character of the kingdom that is to come means engaging with every dimension of life that scripture engages with, and every dimension of life that scripture says that kingdom will heal and redeem.

Christians can’t get in line.

If we can’t get out of the way, the world is going to try to convince us that getting involved in civic life means picking a side and joining the fight. “If Christians care about politics, government and civic life, then Christians have to help their side win.”

For the last few decades, this mindset has been called the “Culture War” paradigm, and it is fundamentally a heresy. Where Paul tells us not to conform to the patterns of the world, the culture war paradigm makes a virtue out of conforming to one party or the other as enthusiastically as we can. Where Paul tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, the culture war paradigm leaves us much too comfortable thinking and speaking and acting just like the other people in our party. Where Jesus says he’s preparing rooms for us in his father’s house, and is sending us out to the people of this world as his witnesses among them, the culture war paradigm teaches us to stop witnessing to our partisan allies. And where the Bible tells us that people from every tribe and tongue are being called into the body of Christ to form a new people, the culture war paradigm encourages us to delegitimize the faith of people who belong to other political tribes.

“Getting in line” doesn’t just dull our senses to the beauty of Christ. It doesn’t just stall our discipleship, making it harder for us to conform to the image of God and produce the fruit of the Spirit. It also serves as a stumbling block to other people, making it harder for them to join the church or grow in the faith.

When we buy into the culture war paradigm, we are tacitly sending the message that sharing our faith means sharing our partisan commitments. Non-Christians who don’t share our politics will come to view our church as a social club for members of our party. Non-Christians who do share our politics will get the idea that they don’t have anything to repent of, and that the point of the faith is to get other people to conform to their own image, rather than learning to let themselves become increasingly conformed to God’s image.

Neither Conforming Nor Withdrawing

We are called to tend to the world, to care for it, to serve it, but not to conform to it. But the world around us wants us to conform to it. Our political culture especially wants us to conform to it. How do we engage with the parts of our political culture that are worth redeeming, without conforming to the patterns of our political culture that deserve condemnation?

We need deliberate instruction on how to think, speak and act Christianly in the public square. If our vision for civic life comes from the world around us, then our vision for civic life is not transcendent or transformative.

Our faith does give us the resources we need to pursue the issues we are passionate about without becoming a partisan hack. And our faith gives us the resources we need to resist toxic partisanship without giving in to lazy or cynical “both-sides-isms.” In an upcoming online course, I offer six goals we can all pursue if we want to follow Jesus into civic life both enthusiastically and redemptively:

  • Learning to view government as a responsibility.
  • Repenting of the desire to re-make other people in our image.
  • Taking actions that highlight our partisan allies’ blind spots.
  • Accepting (and even fostering) more disagreement in the church than we thought we could handle.
  • Identifying the idolatries behind our own partisan commitments.
  • Forming transparent and vulnerable relationships in the church across party lines.

Each of these six goals pushes back against some aspect of the culture war paradigm. Taken together, they form a suite of postures and actions that can help Christians think, speak and act differently from our partisan allies, no matter where we may find ourselves on the political spectrum.

If you would like to learn more about how to develop a more constructive vision for Christian faith in the public square, sign up for Christian Civics Foundations today.

Rick Barry is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Christian Civics. His principled, empathetic focus on witness, humility and spiritual formation makes him a uniquely encouraging voice on questions of political polarization and church health. Christian Civics has been featured multiple times in The Washingtonian, as well as on the radio programs The Reconnect with Carmen LaBerge, Good News for the City, and Grace in 30. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.