My social media feed is never as divided as it is during an election season. The most obvious divide is that between right and left, blue and red. However, that’s far from the only rift, and perhaps not even the deepest one. The real parting of ways is between those who believe Christians have a political role to play and those who do not. Said differently, it’s between those who view power positively and those who view it negatively.
I understand the position of those skeptical of the pursuit of political power. C.S Lewis is surely correct when he insists that “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves…. I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”
But even putting aside “unchecked power,” all political power can be fool’s gold, appearing to be more than it is. Indeed, if there’s any lesson evangelicals should have learned over the past fifty years of political engagement, it’s that politics isn’t a silver bullet. Too often we’ve spent our days trying to pick the bad fruits off the political tree instead of addressing the rotten cultural and spiritual roots that produced that fruit.
Speaking of the past fifty years, it should be noted that power—particularly political power, especially presidential political power—tends to have a corrosive effect. Many were taken off guard by the recently discovered recording of a blatantly racist comment made by Ronald Reagan to Richard Nixon in a 1971 conversation. I didn’t find myself shocked.
As it so happened, the week the recording came available was the same week in which I finished Grant Wacker’s definitive biography of Billy Graham, America’s Pastor. Graham, you might recall, was recorded with Nixon discussing the role Jewish people played in the media, clearly gesturing in an anti-Semitic direction he knew Nixon would appreciate. Graham was later grieved that he made those comments. Indeed, by the end of his life, Graham wished he had “steered clear of politics” all together.
If proximity to such power could make no less of figures than Reagan and Graham behave with such uncharacteristic shamefulness, what hope is there for the rest of us? After all, the allure of power can enable the worst in us by reducing our self-restraint and encouraging our desire to play to our audience. Perhaps we should all heed Graham’s advice and avoid the muck of politics altogether? With respect to America’s Pastor, I want to make an argument to the contrary.
Power is a good thing when viewed and used properly. That’s the thesis of Andy Crouch’s important book, Playing God. In it, Crouch shows that human flourishing is contingent upon power:
Remove power and you cut off life, the possibility of creating something new and better in this rich and recalcitrant world. Life is power. Power is life. And flourishing power leads to flourishing life. Of course, like life itself, power is nothing—worse than nothing—without love. But love without power is less than it was meant to be. Love without the capacity to make something of the world, without the ability to respond to and make room for the beloved’s flourishing, is frustrated love.
This seems like an obvious point, but it’s worth consideration. Love, worked out in hospitality, requires the ability to change circumstances. Without resources, without power, one wouldn’t be able to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, or shelter the homeless. Now, extrapolate this principle from hospitality to politics: how will the slaves be made free or the vulnerable be protected if not by those in power? Indeed, it’s only those with power who have the luxury to think they should avoid it.
Understood this way, power isn’t negative, it’s positive. It’s a vehicle through which justice can be enacted. It’s a way for us to steward God’s good earth, which is our calling, as James Skillen reminds us:
The powerful import of acknowledging God’s ordinances is precisely that we must work at obeying them; in other words, we must shape history in accord with those ordinances and not merely ride through history proclaiming that they exist. The only option besides obedience is disobedience. Justice must be done by us, not merely spoken as a word from our lips. Stewardship is God’s demand upon our farms and shops and corporations, not simply a word to be used for rhyming our Sunday hymns. Nurturing love calls our homes and schools to account; it is not just a term to help us organize our thought at prayer time.
Trusting God’s Power
Skillen’s call here is evocative. He re-shapes the power conversation around faithfulness. Christians get in trouble when they view power as an end in itself. Viewed this way, Christians can justify nearly anything if it’s under the guise of taking power away from the “bad guys” and giving to the “good guys.”
Practically, we resort to name-calling when it comes to describing those who hold positions contrary to our own. Or we may instinctively defend character flaws of those on our side while diminishing the attributes of our opponents. As Jonah Goldberg has pointed out, when we view politics as a team-sport we view our role as citizens solely as helping our side and hurting the other, rather than being the democratic referees our founders assumed we’d be.
Once the power conversation is re-centered around faithfulness, we see that we in fact do not have to obsess about the scoreboard. We will be judged one day by our faithfulness, not the results we achieved. You see, to do a bad thing for a good reason is still bad. If God desires a certain end for his people—the election of a certain candidate, the passing of a particular bill—He won’t require us lying, cheating, or otherwise sinning to achieve that end. Our power is not of this world, after all. Once we’ve adopted the means of the world—even if it’s to achieve a Kingdom end—we’ve placed our faith in something or someone other than the true King, who holds all things in his hands.
I’m always heartened when I’m reminded of the story of Thomas Hardcastle—the English Puritan who found himself persecuted because of his faith. Writing from prison in 1675, Hardcastle says:
“It has been our great error that we have not trusted in the power of God. We have reasoned about the worst that men can do, but have not believed the best that God can do…. Religion is still for standing and going forward. There is no armor for the back.”
This, it seems to me, is the proper Christian approach to power. We recognize that true power, the only power that will last in the final hour, belongs to God. As his vice-regents, we’re entrusted with power here and now—called to be stewards, using that power for the flourishing of all creation. We “go forward” as Hardcastle admonishes. Yet, we do so in a manner worthy of the King we represent, trusting that his sovereignty isn’t dependent upon our shrewdness. In short, we do indeed engage the political process with gusto, but in a way quite different from everyone else. We engage politics as citizens of a polis not of this world.
Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and the author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.