America is caught up (and has been for quite some time) in a culture war of the kind of nation it will be or become. In other words, it is a fight over the future vision of American life (Hunter, Culture Wars).
Given the nature of this culture war, sides are created, and partisan politics are born. There are four characteristics to partisan politics that create a politically toxic environment. They are:
(1) Disagreement over the good life
(2) Demonization of the other
(3) Discouragement (and Disenchantment) among the masses, and
(4) Division (Disunity) in the country.
Politics, in its broadest sense, is the activity through which people make, preserve, and amend the general rules under which they live. In other words, as Aristotle described it, politics is the affairs of the city-state. The city-state has four dimensions of its affairs: 1) Community, 2) Constitution, 3) Commander (ruler), and 4) Cause.
Aristotle taught that the city-state comes into being for the sake of life but exists for the sake of the “good” life.
I put “” around good because that’s the ground where partisan politics and thus the culture wars in America are raged.
The Church’s Role in the American Culture Wars
What in the world is the church’s role in the American Culture Wars? I think this is the question the church has been trying to answer now for decades and will continue in the days and years ahead.
Does the church seek to “reclaim America” as some sort of a nostalgia campaign to restore America to some kind of Leave it to Beaver era? I hate to burst the bubble of those who think this way, but it “ain’t” happening. There are many reasons for this, but one in particular is that Evangelicalism is too fragmented—even politically—to mount such a campaign.
Does the church become even more discouraged and disengaged while they pursue ministry and mission in the enclaves of their local fellowships? I don’t think this is the right answer either, as I do believe that God’s exilic vision to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon has lasting effects for his exiles today.
Without having the space to fully expound on each of these points, let me offer up six ways the church can remain missional in a time when people are being very political.
First, don’t get sucked into partisan politics.
As the people of God, we are not American elephants or American donkeys first, but we first and foremost belong to the party of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
Our allegiance rests with him and him alone. Jesus never entangled himself in the politics of his day but was able to wisely and winsomely navigate politically toxic traps and point to another kingdom and another way of looking at issues.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t engage politically. In fact, I believe we have an opportunity in the American experiment to play an important role in contributing to a flourishing society. And given the crises we have faced as a nation over the last several months, the church doesn’t need to be MIA, but highly involved.
Thus, there’s too much at stake for us not to engage. But in doing so, make sure your identity as an elephant or donkey doesn’t overshadow your identity and allegiance to the LAMB.
Second, model unity in diversity.
It’s obvious evangelicals are divided theologically, philosophically, and even methodologically (practically). So there shouldn’t be any surprise that evangelicals are divided politically. In fact, James Davison Hunter noted in 1987 that evangelicals are increasingly divided and increasingly liberal (Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, 154).
While Hunter noted the political fragmentation among American evangelicals over more secondary and tertiary matters, today there seems to be a slight rise in the political fragmentation over more defining issues—issues such as abortion, religious liberty, sexuality, and immigration. In many cases, defining issues become divisive issues that position people in different [political] parties and, in some cases, different churches.
God’s church will have people who see different paths, based on their understanding of Scripture, to making the world right—which means we will have people with different persuasions and political choices. The temptation here, for those on both sides, would be to join in with the world and hurl insults, vicious attacks, and disdain for the other.
While our differences and diversity of beliefs—theologically and [even] politically—may lead us to worship with like-minded believers, we must still follow the way of Christ. As his followers, we are called to unity—not uniformity.
Don’t misunderstand. This isn’t a political call as there is no call in the bible for believers to possess political unity.
While Evangelicalism in America certainly contains political diversity—which seems to be ever evolving—my prayer is that God’s people will model unity in the union they share in Christ for a nation in desperate need of unity as they struggle their way to forming a more “perfect union.”
Third, seek the peace and prosperity of the city, state, and nation in which God “sent” you.
Based upon Jeremiah, the people of God seek the “shalom” of a community, city, state, and nation by being a partnering peace—working together to make the city a great place to live. In addition, they are to be a preserving peace—caring (or helping to care) for the poor, marginalized, widow, and sojourner. And moreover, they are to be proclaiming peace—where they point to YHWH as the ultimate God and King.
Fourth, pray and submit to governmental authorities.
We know that Paul prayed for kings and all those who are in authority (1 Tim. 2). We know that Paul exhorted the believers in Rome to “submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authorities except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).
It seems that governmental authorities in America have been under attack lately. As the church, we must remain vigilant in praying for our federal, state, city, and community leaders. In addition, we must remain committed to being partners of peace and of the common good with these leaders through our submission.
However, our submission to governing authorities is suspended when they give mandates or orders that contradict our allegiance to King Jesus.
Fifth, peacefully protest policies and laws that harm the good life–or the common good—and work to reverse them.
This is where wisdom and discernment are key. What is the good life—particularly in America?
The Declaration of Independence expressed why our forefathers sought to separate from British rule, and goes on to note, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution explains, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg address, expressed, “...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of Freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
American citizens have a unique opportunity, more so than many citizens living in other countries of the world, to protest against federal and state governments that they believe no longer governs in a manner that is rooted in the good life.
Christians, given their position as American citizens, as well as their call in the world to seek the peace (shalom) and well-being (good) of all (Jer. 29:7; Gal. 6:10) in accordance to God’s common grace in the world, have the responsibility to work for the common good through voting, lobbying to change laws, organizing peacefully, and legal appeal.
Finally, demonstrate and declare the already but not yet kingdom politic of King Jesus.
I believe God is on mission to create a people (kingdom) from all peoples for his glory. This is the mission that God has been on since the beginning. Jesus is the climatic crescendo in God’s mission in that he inaugurated the kingdom of God, and through his death and resurrection sealed the future consummation of the kingdom in the New Creation.
Those who trust Christ as Savior and King become part of God’s people and therefore, are to live under the rule and reign of King Jesus in all spheres of life. As they demonstrate the kingdom of God through their lives, they are to proclaim and invite those far from God—from every tribe, nation, and tongue—to repent of their sin and submit to Jesus as Savior and King.
This is why the church is a city within a city; a people within a people. The call of the church is to reflect and represent the already but not yet kingdom of God. Thus, the church has a different politic that operates subversively in the cultural politic of their specific context.
In closing, there’s no denying the fragmentation of American politics, and thus American citizens. My prayer and hope for the church is that rather than entangle themselves in such culture wars they would seek to engage the culture missionally as a prophetic presence and voice that seeks to point people to Jesus —the ultimate king —while also working for the common good (the good life) for all Americans. Yes, this too is political, but in a more subversive Christ-like way.
Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.