Christians and Politics
This week, Kurt Dykstra of Trinity Christian College spoke to a group of us from Faith Church on the topic of “Christians and Politics.” I wanted to pass along some of the ideas he shared that stuck with me and that I thought would be beneficial for others. Mr. Dykstra’s comments on the topic come in part from his experience in politics as the former mayor of Holland, Michigan, having also served on the city council and worked for a judge. Mr. Dykstra basically discussed two questions on the topic: (1) should Christians be involved in politics and (2) how should Christians be involved in politics.
For some Christians, the answer to that first question “Should” might seem obvious -- but in different ways to different people. For example, those in the Anabaptist tradition (e.g., Mennonites, Brethren, Amish, etc.) would say that a Christian has no business in politics, as there should be a separation of the people of God from the things of the world. (Others might be more practical than theological and say Christians should stay away because politics are dirty!) In contrast, the Reformed tradition (under the influence of John Calvin), the tradition from which Mr. Dykstra speaks and Faith Church belongs, would say that Christians should be involved in politics -- in fact, we must be involved in part because of the corruption found in them and in the world, as we can be a redeeming presence in a fallen and broken world. In fact, John Calvin takes about the fact that Christians with gifts in politics have a duty to be involved and that if the government is corrupt and wrong, the people have the right and duty to overthrow the government (this idea actually influenced the thoughts of the Founding Fathers as they overthrew the perceived tyranny of England to form what they thought would be a more perfect union). This does not mean that the church should control the state or the state control the church (as other Christian thinkers have argued), but it does mean that Christians should be involved and that their beliefs will influence their policies. As one in the Reformed tradition, I would concur with Mr. Dykstra that Christians are not to sit on the sideline and just watch the world burn, but like Jeremiah told the people of Israel while they were in exile, we should seek the welfare of the cities in which we dwell (see Jeremiah 29:7). We will not bring heaven on earth (that is what God does), but we can seek to work in ways so that our world reflects the kingdom and value of God. In many ways, this follows the model of figures like Joseph and Daniel, who were involved in the pagan governments of Egypt and Babylon. We should engage the cultural, and political involvement is part of culture and engagement.
The second question, which naturally flows from the answer to the first question, is “how” -- how should Christians be involved in politics? Mr. Dykstra thinks this might vary from person to person, from Christian to Christian, based on his or her temperaments and gifts; there is no single prescription for all Christians. There are some Christians who should run for political office, whether that is on the small scale (city council, etc.) or the larger scale (state and national offices). God has given people passions and abilities in these spheres, and Christians should use these for the public good. Those Christians who go into the political world should know and recognize that this system involves compromise (our political system is an intentionally inefficient system, as people in various bodies, like the House and Senate, from various places, from rural parts of the country to urban parts, must all agree on something), so there is a sense in which you might have to work deal and compromises if you are in politics. Of course, this does not mean violating essential convictions (and there should never be compromise of character), but it involves give and take in terms of policies and priorities. This process actually starts when someone runs for office, as he or she needs to appeal to a wider number of voters as well; one cannot govern if one is not elected and one needs the majority (or at least a plurality) to be elected.
For others, this call might be to be involved in campaigns and causes that we are passionate about. Mr. Dykstra does think that at the very least, Christians in America should be voting, as we have this gift given to us, and this means that we should seek to be reasonably informed and knowledgeable about things (though knowing people will have various levels of interest and time to get informed). A question emerged about what to do when you are not enthralled with either of the candidates for an office (something that is true of many people right now!), to which Mr. Dykstra reminded us that an election and government is more than a person; that person will appoint others in a variety of positions (cabinet positions, judges, other diplomats, etc.), so you might think through what person will more likely empower people who are competent and in line with your values and beliefs. In effect, look beyond the candidate to who might be in their inner circle. There might be a temptation to vote for a minor party candidate, but this person probably won’t win, so it might be throwing the vote away, and we live in a culture in which elections are often tightly disputed (in the past, this was less the case), so every vote might matter (as a side note, Mr. Dykstra thinks this is why there is so much hostility in the political process right now, as people are fighting for every vote, the 20% in the middle that will make the difference. This makes our era more intense).
There is also another sense in which we are called to engaged in the political process through conversations with people. Politics (like religion) can often be on the forbidden topic list. Sometimes, this happens because we do not approach the conversation well; we say this is right or wrong and just leave it there, inciting a heated, adversarial debate. We were coached by Mr. Dykstra to talk more about shared values and benefits for all people (religious and nonreligious) when discussing issues with people who might not be like us or think like us -- and to also be transparent about our journey to our beliefs. Talk about how you came to your belief and why -- and be interested in hearing their beliefs and why. If nothing else, seek to have a conversation with people about issues, trying to understand them and why they think the way that they do. In addition, it might be wise to seek to engage people who are in the middle and genuinely interested rather than whose minds are already made up.
We live in a culture in which things are shifting and changing rapidly -- things that were not viewed as plausible 10-15 years ago are now accepted. In fact, people are increasingly seeing religious people as part of the problem rather than the solution and things that we may think are “normal religious practices” as extremism; there is a belief that people can believe what they want but they should not act on it, which flies in the face of our faith that says we must be doers and not just hearers of the word. This moment means it might is important for Christians to be in the public sphere right now, to be part of public discourse and debate and involved in these processes. We need to stay engaged, and also to know how to engage people who might think differently from us. Just as our vision statement says, we are called to restore the world (which involves being involved in things like politics) but we also do this one relationship at a time (which involves conversation and dialogue, reaching people’s hearts and heads and not just turning on the news).
I am thankful for these insights as I ponder what it means for me to be involved as a citizen, and hope they prove thought-provoking to you as well. These ideas don’t tell us how to vote, but they give us practical thoughts on the topic while also serving as a reminder of the various ways we can be involved in restoring the world one relationship at a time.
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