The end of 2020 is finally nigh, and my impulse, encouraged by the expectant mindset of Advent—to say nothing of the truly remarkable pace at which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed—is to look forward to new and better things. This is what we do as one year closes and another opens: set resolutions, vow to tread fresh paths, and, hopefully, repurpose ourselves in habits that aid in love of God and neighbor.
But it would be a mistake to exclusively look forward at the impending conclusion not only of a year but also of a presidency and a public crisis like nothing in living memory. This is an opportunity to look back, to engage in a year-scaled and politics-focused version of the nightly practice of examen, which was developed by Ignatius of Loyola, a theologian and co-founder of the Jesuit order. It is a good time to think and pray about our (perhaps unconscious) theology of political engagement; about the consistency of our political positions, both among themselves and with what we believe as Christians; and about our political behavior, the way we’ve comported ourselves in the public square and the way we’ve handled political differences in our private relationships.
The examen, as Ignatius conceived it, formalizes David’s plea in Psalm 139:23–24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius gave five steps for the examen. Begin, he wrote, by giving thanks to God. Then, “ask grace to know our sins and cast them out.” Having done so, take an inventory of the whole day’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Finally, “ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults” and “purpose amendment with his grace.”
It is the middle step, the inventory, in which I’m interested here. What is there is there to inspect in our political lives? The “hour by hour” review Ignatius proposed isn’t feasible, but we can still peruse our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Our political theology is an apt place to begin, especially because it may be something we’ve never consciously considered. I’ve argued here at CT that American evangelicals have long swayed between two impulses: one that draws on Reformed traditions and another that pulls from Anabaptism and Pietism. The former says that because our faith should be visible in every part of our lives, and politics is one of those parts, Christians should use politics to make our country reflect God’s will insofar as we can. The latter takes a more dubious view of power, insisting that what we do as Christians is more important than what we do as citizens—and indeed our faith limits the tasks of citizenship we can perform. (CT’s president and CEO, Timothy Dalrymple, in a recent editorial delved into these impulses at greater depth, dubbing them the Church Regnant and Church Remnant, respectively.)
In the past five years, however, a third impulse has come to the fore within American evangelicalism, particularly among some evangelical supporters of President Trump. Though I don’t think it knowingly relies on this resource, the third impulse could build on the work of Martin Luther, who condemned the “raving” Anabaptists who believed themselves “subject to no [secular] law and no Sword.” That's fine for private life with fellow Christians, Luther said, but “before you rule the world in the Christian and Gospel manner, be sure to fill it with true Christians,” because, “the world will not tolerate a Christian government.” To “try to rule a whole country or the world by means of the Gospel,” he wrote, “is like herding together wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep in the same pen” and expecting peace to result. The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount have no place in governance, in this view, and politicians deserve Christian support if they are willing to wield power against the “wolves.”
My political theology puts me in the Church Remnant space, to use Dalrymple’s term, or among the raving Anabaptists, to quote Luther. The question for examen is where your political theology falls. Does it cohere with your other theological commitments? And how consistent are you as political circumstances change? That is, do you find yourself drifting from one framework to another as power changes hands?
Richard Beck of Abilene Christian University has argued that some politically progressive Christians, especially those raised in evangelicalism, borrow Anabaptist language to “[denounce] the evils of war, empire, nationalism, and Constantinian Christianity,” particularly when a president they dislike is in office. But those same Christians, Beck says, have a political activist instinct that doesn’t entirely fit in the Anabaptist framework—it’s more like a progressive iteration of the Church Regnant—and when an opportunity to win an election or otherwise make political change appears, that instinct takes over. The same sort of shift can happen, often unrecognized, with any political alignment.
On the subject of political alignments, here is another space for scrutiny: Do our political positions make sense among themselves? Are they guided by principle over expedience? And have we followed our principles to their conclusions? Do we seek rights or benefits for ourselves we wouldn’t accord to others? We might also do well to ask if we’ve apportioned our political attention responsibly, whether we’re following too many issues on too shallow a level to give any the care they deserve. I’m convinced most of us would do well to narrow and deepen our political focus and limit the mental territory we allot politics entirely. (I include myself in that “most,” though I write about politics for a living. My boundaries might be set a little more generously to accommodate my work, but that work makes boundaries even more necessary.)
Having broached the subject of political behavior, let’s conclude the examen there. It’s almost impossible to overstate the extent to which social media has changed our notions of what is kind, respectful, and necessary. Here’s a thought experiment I like to propose: Suppose it’s 1995, and you are sharing news and opinion articles with family and friends at the exact same pace you do now. There’s no Facebook or Twitter, so you clip newspapers, Xerox hundreds of copies, and deliver your “shares” via the US Postal Service. What would your recipients think of you? What would you think of yourself?
It’s not that social media has no benefits—but, like the tongue in James 3, it’s also capable of grave corruption. It invites political speech to strangers and loved ones alike for which there is simply no comparable occasion throughout most of human history. Its use tends to harden our opinions if we’re not careful, making us less receptive to new information and perspectives.
That vehemence shows up offline, too. And whatever our political theology or political alignment, as Christians engaging in politics we are called to “speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,” as James wrote in the prior chapter (2:8, 12), which is the “royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.
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