Through this long election campaign, the theme of "evangelicals and politics" has surfaced again and again. Endorsements from high-profile clergymen have been sought—and then discarded. Candidate appearances have been scheduled in churches, charities, colleges, and other places important to evangelicals. Party platforms have been modified with evangelicals in mind. And staff have been hired specifically to find out the best possible answer to one fundamental question: What do evangelicals want?

A spate of recent books by evangelicals provides a set of windows through which we can see what evangelicals want. And what they want is not what everyone is used to thinking evangelicals want.

The first feature of these books is their moderation in tone, as even the late D. James Kennedy writes, "God created only one country in the history of the world: ancient Israel. He did not create America. The United States is not the new Israel." Southern Baptist leader Richard Land freely acknowledges the plurality of religions in contemporary America and insists that church and state must be rigorously kept separate. In short, there are no advocates for theocracy in any of these books. As Kennedy memorably puts it, "Jesus is not on the ballot."

At the same time, there are no broadsides against America, either, no easy "Amerika" jibes, no wholesale denunciations of the United States' leaders, its military, its corporations, and its popular culture, as we have been led to expect. Instead, Ron Sider leads the way in calling evangelicals to a responsible engagement in politics that will increase justice, morality, compassion, security, prosperity, and freedom for all.

This responsible engagement, furthermore, is seen by almost all of these authors in terms of a chastened realism, the expectation that politics will not provide anyone's preferred version of the kingdom of God on earth. This realism remarkably contrasts with the bombast of certain evangelical preachers and authors of the Left and the Right who press for an all-or-nothing, total conquest of American culture on behalf of their vision of righteousness. Instead, the common exhortation in these books is for patient and piecemeal shalom making that will never usher in the New Jerusalem, but will nonetheless further God's purposes.

And what are those purposes? Many evangelicals still place an exclusive emphasis on "saving souls." These books instead are informed not only by the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to "make disciples," but also by the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 to cultivate the world as "sub-creators" (Tolkien) with God. Whatever their political differences, they nonetheless agree that Christians should engage in political life not only to pursue their religious purposes without interference, but also to secure some other goods for the general welfare.

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Greg Boyd's The Myth of a Christian Nation stands out from the rest precisely in this respect. Boyd provides an evangelical version of the political theology of the late Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder and Duke University's Stanley Hauerwas. Boyd calls the church to offer itself to the world as an alternative community of peacemaking and holiness, thus remaining apart from institutions of coercion and violence (such as the judicial and military systems). Boyd scorns any concern for political effectiveness in favor of the concern for particular faithfulness to the example of Jesus.

Once this case is made, however, it is not clear just what Christians are to do regarding the system of electoral politics. And if we think Christians should not abandon the state to non-Christians, then we must turn away from Boyd to the bulk of these recent books.

If one reads or views some media accounts of the squabbles among evangelicals over global climate change, one might think that the evangelical Left is concerned about it while the evangelical Right wants to stick doggedly to what some have called its restricted agenda of beginning- and end-of-life issues, with (restricted) sex in between.

These books, however, share a remarkably similar, and broad, agenda. Harry Jackson Jr. of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council conclude their list of this year's top seven political issues with "the environment and global warming," and they devote two chapters to "poverty and justice." Kennedy also writes a chapter about the environment. For his part, Sider devotes a chapter to "the sanctity of human life." Immigration policy is on everyone's list, and war is not far from anyone's mind as the conflict in Iraq grinds on.

Indeed, this emerging commonality of tone and agenda between Left and Right is confirmed, if also complicated, by voices claiming the "evangelical center." Ethicist David Gushee's book The Future of Faith in American Politics is subtitled, The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center. Among the issues he selects as key are torture and human rights, marriage and the law, creation care and climate change, and war. Political scientist Steve Monsma addresses the same subjects from his centrist viewpoint, adding to his list "life issues," poverty, and rampant disease in Africa.

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How much Gushee and Monsma represent a distinctly different position, however, is not clear, given the broadening and coalescing agendas of Left and Right. Indeed, Gushee's book is dedicated to Ron Sider and Sider is acknowledged also in Monsma's book.

Furthermore, several authors explicitly uncouple evangelicalism from the Republican Party, most strikingly authors on the Right. The cover of Richard Land's book lampoons both parties, while Jackson (himself a registered Democrat) and Perkins advocate "salting" both parties with gospel concerns. It's one thing for Jim Wallis to declare that not all evangelicals are members of the GOP. It's another when the head of the Family Research Council says so, too.

Differences—and Questions—Still Remain

Lest one gather the impression, however, that politically concerned evangelicals have miraculously come together in unity of spirit and uniformity of opinion, important differences do linger.

Sider maintains a pacifist stance and an opposition to capital punishment. Those on the Right maintain a "just war" position and a defense of capital punishment. And Gushee offers a carefully nuanced intermediate view on war, torture, and terrorism.

Authors on the Right believe we must care for creation and that we do so best through market initiatives and education with only limited legislation, scorning particularly the Kyoto Accord as ineffective and wasteful. Monsma insists that some international agreements, if not Kyoto, are essential. And Sider urges that rich countries actually try to slow down economic growth in order to provide a sustainable environment for our grandchildren.

Taxation, welfare, foreign aid, and immigration rules—all of these are in play, and these authors offer quite different (and largely predictable) opinions about them.

Finally, some of those on the Right continue to press for an America that is officially as well as substantially as Christian as possible. Land advocates a civil religion that continues to acknowledge "in God we trust," since that is what a majority of Americans believe and the minority who don't will just have to abide by the will of the democratic majority. And Jackson and Perkins conclude their book with a chapter title that harks back to Moral Majority days: "Taking the Land."

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Yet even Land, true to his allegiance to the democratic process, is open to the possibility that a non-Christian majority in a public school district might properly demand a proportionate amount of time to have their faith acknowledged in student-led religious exercises in school events, such as athletic events (the high holy days of American high school life, one supposes). To be sure, Land clearly hopes American Christians will continue to predominate indefinitely. But he and others at least acknowledge America's pluralism and are trying to accommodate themselves to it without resorting simply to official and actual Christian domination.

Most evangelicals rightly believe that political involvement is part of their civic duty, one way to love their neighbors. But as evangelical thinking about politics continues to evolve, several questions remain.

A Mixed Field

Jesus once described the world as a field full of both grain and weeds (Matt. 13:37–43). So what should we expect in this weedy world?

We should expect sin. We should expect some politicians to accept graft, and some executives to sell out their companies and shareholders and customers for personal gain. We should expect drunk driving and drug pushing and cartels and sexual assault and stock manipulation and terrorism and a hundred other evils.

Beyond outright sin, we should expect waste. It should not shock us that governments and armies and corporations and schools waste money. It should not shock us that institutions waste people's time and waste people's talents and waste the earth's resources. Indeed, beyond sin and waste, we should expect stupidity and absurdity, vanity and promiscuity. And we should also expect a certain amount of confusion in which it is not always clear what is weed and what is grain.

Furthermore, we must reckon not only with what is bad out there, but also with what is bad in here: in our individual selves and in our most sacred institutions, whether families, churches, or other Christian organizations.

Reckoning means "acting accordingly," thus structuring and conducting our lives so as to restrain the evil within us and the evil without us as best we can, and responding properly when those restraints give way, as they so often do. Such reckoning also means that we do not wait until our motives have resolved into perfect purity before we attempt to do God's work, since few of us consider ourselves "entirely sanctified" as of yet. Furthermore, such reckoning means that we not only are not shocked by impure motives in others, but also that we presume impure motives in others. Doing so, we yet will decide sometimes to support them, cooperate with them, and praise them for their successes, since we do not demand of them an unrealistic purity.

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We will always wish it were otherwise, and we will demand legality at least and high principle at best. But we will not merely wring our hands and despair of politics until a truly good political option appears. For we would then have to wait for Jesus' return and remain useless politically in the meanwhile (except perhaps in the limited role of chiding everyone else for failing to be as good as he is). We will expect our leaders—in state, commerce, the professions, and also the church—to be tempted by power, money, and fame. So we will construct the healthiest possible hierarchies, which will both help them resist temptation and protect the rest of us from their expected failures to do so.

All of these negative expectations, however, arise not out of despair, which enervates and immobilizes, but out of both cleareyed empirical analysis and our own theology, which illuminate and motivate. For our theology, which contains a robust doctrine of sin, includes also robust doctrines of both providence and redemption. God set up institutions to bless us, despite their corruption, and he continues to work through them. God also rules history and aids those who press for greater shalom in those institutions. God is not discouraged by the evil evident in ourselves and our world. He is sad about it, angry at it, and grieved by it, but not discouraged. He works away at it, knowing that his labor is certain to produce fruit. And he has called us to do the same as human beings and as Christians.

Wise Christian Politics Is Complicated

In the light of this reality, we can now see that there are three kinds of people who undertake political action. The ideologue has it easiest. He simply asks himself, in any situation on any issue, what's ultimately right. Then he does everything he can to realize that ideal.

That's the way many Christians have engaged in political action, whether on the Left, Right, or whatever. If we believe that abortion is wrong, then we work to outlaw it. If we think that gay marriage is consonant with Christian values, then we should make it legal. Graphic movies, globalization, immigration, climate change—whatever it is we believe is right on any issue, we simply seek to universalize by whatever means are available.

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The pragmatist also starts with the question of what's ultimately right. But then she carefully appraises the situation and works for what she deems currently possible. If abortion is wrong, but the best she can do is get a ban on partial-birth abortions, she works for that. If gay marriage is wrong, but the best she can do is see "civil unions" instituted instead, then that's what she aims for.

The pluralist asks what's ultimately right and what's currently possible. But he interposes a third, admittedly odd question between those two: What is penultimately right? Might it be God's will that what is ultimately right not prevail immediately?

The pluralist Christian might have strong views about x. He is also pragmatic enough to know that a total ban on alternatives to his views of x is unlikely in his society. But he is also willing to consider the possibility that in God's providence, it is better for there to be more than one view of x allowed in society. He might see that, yes, ultimately God's will is to get rid of this or that, but penultimately it serves God's purposes for society to allow this or that to remain.

Let's consider an easy example. It is ultimately better that all speech be accurate, eloquent, and edifying. But most of us Christians think it's best for our societies to allow for considerable freedom in speech. For some good things to happen, we concede, some not-so-good things and even some bad things must be allowed to remain.

Thus, wise Christian politics has a difficult three-fold task: to determine what is ultimately right, to determine what is penultimately best, and to work for what is politically possible.

How to Engage in Politics

Let's turn, then, to the particular question of campaigning for what we think is right and good for the common life of our schools, neighborhoods, municipalities, regions, and countries. Let's consider, in turn, which Christians should do it and in what modes we should do it.

Not everyone is responsible to take part in public advocacy in any major way, so we should support those who do with prayer and perhaps also money. Some Christians clearly are gifted and called to various kinds of campaigning, whether through wise speech, political authority, personal networks, technical expertise, and so on. Others may not feel so gifted, but Providence thrusts them into advocacy through experience and therefore opportunity: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example. Most of us, however, will be in neither category.

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Pastors in particular must have a clear sense of what they can and cannot do well. Christian politicians, political scientists, and activists usually will have the most clear and helpful advice about politics, just as Christian physicians, nurses, other medical professionals, administrators, chaplains, and patients will have the most to offer regarding health care. Pastors serve such Christians well in two modes: by teaching them about the fundamental principles of Christian engagement (such as the nature of Christian mission, vocation, and the like) and by exhorting them to pursue their particular callings.

It is the unusual pastor who has the genuine expertise, insight, and opportunity to enter another realm—such as politics—and do or say something better than his fellow Christians who already work in that realm are doing and saying. Furthermore, when pastors insist on speaking out of their depths, they undermine their credibility and usefulness in their primary calling. So if pastors long for Christian voices to be raised and Christian hands to be employed in this or that cultural challenge, they must be clear that their particular calling is not to charge in themselves but to "equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph. 4:12, ESV).

The Christian church can be deployed in a wide range of modes in order to accomplish a wide range of actions. We can act as individuals, as a family, as a congregation, as a denomination, as an ecumenical fellowship, or in special-purpose groups (such as World Vision or Focus on the Family). We can also participate in interfaith coalitions, in secular political parties, and through other secular channels (e.g., a neighborhood association, a charity, a labor union, or an advocacy group such as Amnesty International). We therefore need to consider which mode is best suited to the particular challenge we face.

Furthermore, on vexed issues, there is rarely a particular policy that is "just plain Christian." Sometimes, to be sure, we do face such an issue: campaigns for the care of children or the end of religious persecution can be such causes. But even in those cases, people of equal faithfulness and competence can disagree about just what is to be done in a given circumstance.

It would be best, then, for pastors, congregations, denominations, and ecumenical fellowships to encourage each Christian to take his or her proper place in these other modes and to work with other Christians and with other citizens of goodwill as best he or she can—even as that will often mean that members of the same family or church or congregation will end up in different parties or otherwise advocate different recommendations as to what to do. Our congregations, denominations, and ecumenical fellowships then will represent Christian unity, as they "maintain the bonds of peace" around our common life in Christ (sacraments, preaching, liturgy, mutual service, and so on) even as we serve Christ in various ways and even in some tension with each other.

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Therefore, when someone looks at a current controversy or area of need and asks, "Where is the church?" the answer is not to be couched solely in terms of the actions of clergy, congregations, denominations, and so on, as if Christ deploys his church only in these modes. The answer instead should be: "Here, and here, and here: indeed, everywhere there is significant, useful action by Christians on behalf of shalom."

So What About Faith and Politics?

The issue of political decision making by the Christian can be focused by thinking of the Christian politician in particular, recognizing that what she does is a full-time, professional version of what each of us should do as citizens. The issue then breaks out into two questions: (1) Should a politician take her faith into account when she is considering an issue? and (2) Should a politician make policy strictly according to the ultimate ideals of her religion?

To the former question, the answer is easy, if we are true to the form of government we have. Americans and others around the world have chosen what is called representative democracy over direct democracy. We elect people to represent us in political decisions: they are to gather the information, listen to all sides, and then decide on our behalf. They are to do this work for the rest of us who are too busy or uninformed or unskilled to do the job ourselves. And if we are sufficiently unhappy with what they decide, we replace them in the next election.

If we prefer our politicians to vote just as a majority of their constituencies happen to prefer at the time, we are asking for direct, not representative, democracy. And then we can simply govern the country by the Internet: we can all log on every morning and cast our own votes and make laws directly. Granted, some days that option looks pretty good. But few of us really want that sort of "mob rule."

So we should be thinking hard about whom we are sending to the legislature to decide for us. Such a person is, after all, a particular combination of upbringing, education, job experience, family life, and religious commitment—understanding "religious" in the broad sense of "whatever is most basic to his or her philosophy of life." And if we have elected a traditional Christian, we should expect her to decide as one. If we prefer a different set of values—say, those of a secular humanist or a liberal Muslim or an observant Jew—then we should elect that sort of person and expect him or her to decide accordingly.

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As to the latter question, then, the Christian politician ought to answer the three questions of the pluralist. First, she decides what she thinks is right according to her best, Christianity-informed judgment. In considering the vexed issue of government recognition of same-sex marriage, for example, we would expect her to agree that marriage is best defined just the way traditional Christianity says it is.

Then, however, she thinks pragmatically as a politician, trying to broker the best arrangement for all concerned, to maximize shalom in the particular circumstances she confronts. And as she looks at the options available to her, she might well decide not to seek the imposition of traditional Christian teaching about marriage on a fractious population because she concludes that there is no way to achieve that total result.

She might also, however, ask the third, intermediate question as to whether it is best, all things considered (including the face that Christians want to present to the general public on behalf of the gospel), for Christians to push for their own view of marriage. Might the values of the kingdom of God be advanced better by Christians compromising on that question at least somewhat, while preserving state support for such values as covenantal faithfulness between people, mutual support, and so on? Or will the gospel go forth better and more shalom be made even if Christians are widely seen as homophobic and imperialistic, rather than accommodating and tolerant of some things they clearly don't like?

Thus, the Christian politician might vote for the state to call same-sex unions "marriages," while preserving the rights of religious groups to reserve their own marriage ceremonies only for those unions they can conscientiously bless. Or she might want to take the word "marriage" out of the state's vocabulary entirely and endorse "civil unions" or "registered domestic partnerships" instead. Or she might well decide instead that traditional Christian teaching about marriage is exactly what is needed in her society, and so she votes that way.

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The crucial thing to note is that she might well have done her job properly to come out in support of any of those three alternative policies. She has voted according to what she felt was the way to secure the most shalom for her constituencies and for her country, and according to what she thinks will best advance the redemptive plan of God.

Making the Best of It

It is encouraging, then, to consider these recent books as marking a significant advance for evangelical political thinking beyond the easy categories of "all or nothing" and "red or blue." They also advance toward a more realistic appraisal of what can and cannot be done through electoral politics and major institutions in general. They share a broad agenda and many common principles, even as their specific recommendations spread out over a policy spectrum. And they show that faithfulness and effectiveness can be held together as Christian ideals.

It's a new political season in America, and also a new era for evangelical political thought and engagement. This Canadian looks forward to seeing what happens next.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. His most recent book is Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford University Press).

Related Elsewhere:

Books discussed in this article:

The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church
Gregory A. Boyd | Zonervan | 2006

The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center
David P. Gushee | Baylor University Press | 2008

Personal Faith, Public Policy
Harry R. Jackson Jr. and Tony Perkins | Frontline | 2008

How Would Jesus Vote? A Christian Perspective on the Issues
D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe | Waterbrook | 2008

The Divided States of America?
Richard Land | Thomas Nelson | 2007

Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy
Steve Monsma | Crossway | 2008

The Scandal of Evangelical Politics
Ron Sider | Baker | 2008

For more politics coverage, see Christianity Today's campaign 2008 section and the politics blog.

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