All political action tells a story. These stories teach us something about what is good or evil, what is heroic or cowardly, and which ideas—or even people—deserve a public hearing. Immersion in these stories is deeply formative, and that formation, when it goes unnoticed, can subvert our imitation of Christ. How are our politics molding us? And what does it mean to pursue habits of spiritual maturity with politics in mind? Kaitlyn Schiess, an author and seminarian whose formative years in American evangelicalism culminated with graduation from Liberty University in 2016, explores these questions in The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor. CT columnist Bonnie Kristian spoke with Schiess about her book.
The Liturgy of Politics begins by looking at the intersection of Christianity and politics in America over the past half century. How would you characterize the problem you see, and what’s the new way forward you’re proposing?
The book’s thesis is that our political formation shapes us in spiritual ways—but also that our spiritual formation should shape us in political ways. We have not sufficiently examined the state of our hearts and the power of the political stories we have taken for granted. We don’t recognize, necessarily, the ways we are shaped on a lower register by the political media we consume and the political habits we practice. That shaping is not content to stay in the political realm; inevitably, it will influence us spiritually.
My goal in the book, then, is to look at that problem and say: Maybe the answer we need is not a new answer. Maybe the answer we need is to return to the historic practices of the church that have always been intended to form us, not only internally but also outwardly as we go about our lives and engage in political action.
When you use words like political or politics, you have something broader in mind than what those words tend to mean in everyday usage. What does politics mean to you?
I define politics as anything that deals with our common life together. But I also want to help Christians consider political engagement in a narrower sense, as it relates to statecraft and specific policies. In neither sense does politics have to be a dirty word.
Part of the goal of the book was showing how the mechanics of our government affect us in broader ways than we typically realize. They shape every dimension of our common life: our work, our education, our family life, our neighborhoods. We are affected by policies and politicians in ways we wouldn’t necessarily categorize as “political,” and this narrow perspective is often a product of privilege and of failing to love our neighbors consistently enough to care about how government actions affect them.
In the foreword to your book, Michael Wear asks readers to imagine what could happen if “a growing number of Christians decided their faith had implications for their politics.” I suspect most American Christians would say they’ve already done that. How do you respond to someone who says, “My faith absolutely shapes my politics; you just don’t like the results”?
It’s important, of course, to ask how our faith commitments should translate into political behavior. But too often, we don’t give enough attention to how that translation changes us. The formative power of the practices and habits of the church is greater—or at least should be greater—than the formative power of our political loyalties. The gospel should be a story that captures our whole lives, and there shouldn’t be a divide between my church life and the way I live outside church walls—between the way I serve people in my community and the way I vote.
It’s not just a question of “How do I take propositional truths from Scripture and apply them to debates about specific policies or politicians?” Inevitably, we’re going to disagree about that, and while those conversations are important to have, the heart of the book is about looking at our loves, loyalties, desires, fears—our underlying story about what the world is and how it should be and our role within it. This is what we have to get straight before considering which policies to support or which politicians to vote for.
You use the phrase “political education” to argue that politics is part of “the life of the whole person that must be nurtured and guided by the church.” Does your vision include church education on the specifics of public policy?
I want to see churches become places where we can have conversations about policy. Part of the reason I stay focused, in the book, on sacraments and spiritual disciplines is that I want to avoid reducing politics to an extracurricular activity for people who happen to find it interesting. More generally, I’d like to see churches host classes on political theology, which offers valuable insight on the history of Christians in very different times and places who have already thought about our relationship with government.
I’m not sure that pastors should make a point of saying which policies we should support or which politicians we should vote for. I do, however, believe the pastor’s role includes examining the loves, loyalties, and desires that undergird our politics and not being afraid to say when we have a disordered relationship with ideals like security or prosperity—or even America itself. The church can help us see where idolatry has warped our political thinking, but how that influences our decisions in the voting booth is probably best left to our own consciences in the sight of God.
Our country is grappling with police brutality and racial inequality, past and present. How would you advise congregations wanting to address these issues?
We have to think about racism—and white supremacy in particular—as a disordered form of worship. So not only are we dealing with how the church should respond to political questions raised by racism, like how to address real problems in policing—on a deeper level, we’re dealing with a failure of discipleship. This is one of many reasons I tell people my book is ultimately about the church rather than politics. If we had a stronger sense of the church’s global and historic character, and if we valued loyalty to the body of Christ above loyalty to any political community or movement, then we would feel a stronger obligation to fight politically for all our brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter their race.
In a very strange election year, what would you say to Christians trying their best to remain faithful?
No one vote should have to bear the symbolic weight of representing the whole of our political witness in the world. One of the goals I have in my own church is to constantly remember that our political life is larger than our decisions in any single election. We have local opportunities to seek flourishing in our community. We have elections that are less complicated—for judges, sheriffs, and school board members. We have forms of civic service that aren’t about voting.
I think it’s helpful for congregations that are fairly united in their political views to find some diversity in the way they serve their communities locally. And the reverse principle goes for communities with more political diversity: Try to find some common ground in your approach to local political work. The more we can get away from treating presidential votes as preeminent, the more we can find freedom to come together and seek political flourishing for our neighbors.
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