Celebrating the Unglamorous, Effective Work of Local Politics
Assuming you haven't been hiding under a rock for the past six months, chances are you can name most of the candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nominee. But can you give the name of your city's treasurer—the person appointed to keep track of all bank accounts, income, and taxes, including your own? What about your local school board president? Your mayor?
Political scientist Amy E. Black believes that Christians, like most Americans, have underestimated the power of local governments to effect real, life-changing change for neighborhoods and neighbors. Local politics "offers us the most direct connection to decision makers and addresses many basic, life-and-death issues such as access to food, shelter, and other necessities," says the Wheaton College professor, noting that Christians can have "more immediate impact" in their cities due to the smaller scale. "A targeted e-mail campaign from dozens of church members can lead to quick results."
Black, who recently penned a Christianity Today cover story about the 2012 election, talked with City editorial director Katelyn Beaty about how Christians should proceed when they disagree about what's best for their community, and names the area of public life that most needs attention and reform.
For many, "local politics" brings to mind images of going to city hall to protest a new parking code, or another flyer in the mail encouraging recipients to reelect the woman who's been county treasurer for 10 years. In other words, local politics seems inconsequential, especially measured against national debates on immigration reform and the debt ceiling crisis. Why should Christians be invested in local politics? And what does that investment look like?
The work of local governments most directly affects our lives and best meets the needs of the community. In most parts of the United States, it is easy to take local government services for granted because we have grown so accustomed to having basic needs met. We think little about our easy access to clean drinking water, public utilities, police and fire protection, paved roads, and sewer systems. Much of the work of local government is the routine, day-to-day provision of these basic services. It isn't exciting, but it is essential.
And Christians should be invested in local politics for several reasons. Most importantly, we can live out our call to love neighbor by paying attention to the work of local governing authorities and making sure that they are [pursuing] the common good. Second, the smaller the unit of government, the more significant our individual contributions become. A few concerned activists can attend a school board or city council meeting and help influence the decision-making.
So it sounds like engaging in local politics has more immediate, long-term impacts than voting for the next president on November 2. Should Christians be more invested in local politics than in national politics, considering they will have only marginal impact in the latter scene?
I'm glad Christians are called to work in national politics, and I applaud those who devote time and effort to presidential and congressional campaigns and to writing Congress and the president. But too few of us even know what is happening at the local level, moreover invest time and effort into following and seeking to influence local politics.
Paul's admonition that the church has many members with different roles and functions applies to politics as well. We are not all called to oversee the work of a city council or closely follow the sheriff's policies and procedures, but we also shouldn't ignore the work that these officials do. Our system of government disperses power between the federal, state, and local governments, and every level is worthy of our attention.
In your book Beyond Left and Right and your recent cover story, you call politics a form of "love in action"—a way of enacting God's good intentions upon neighbors and a community. But what love looks like can vary widely among Christians in a community. How should engaged Christians proceed when love seems to take conflicting forms? How do we discern what is truly loving for a community?
In my forthcoming book, Honoring God in Red or Blue (Moody), I point my readers to politics as a means of love in action. By that phrase, I mean that representative politics offers a way for communities to come together to resolve differences peacefully. We disagree about what is best, we have competing interests and concerns, but we find a way to work together and move forward. Often politics is about seeking imperfect solutions to intractable problems. Our world is fallen and broken, and life together is messy. But representative politics can help us find ways to serve the common good and protect essential rights.
Once we start looking at individual issues, of course, the picture grows more complex. Christians can and will disagree about political questions, and, at times, they will disagree about what response is most loving to one's neighbor.
Part of the disagreement likely stems from a common approach to politics where we approach issues by first asking, "How does this affect me?" decide what is in our self-interest, and then pursue that end. Self-seeking behavior breeds conflict.
But as Christians we are called to a higher standard. We should begin with thinking about the needs of the community and the impact on the most vulnerable members of society. Who will this policy affect and in what ways? Who stands to gain the most? Who stands to lose the most? Which of the competing interests are most important for the good of the community? These aren't simple questions, but when we approach politics with a recognition that some are likely to gain and some are likely to lose as a result of a policy change, this focus can help us determine the most loving response.
Another reason for disagreement is that many policy differences are more about the best way to pursue a policy end than about what ends to pursue. For example, we can all agree that the loving Christian shares God's concern for the poor. But we may fundamentally disagree about what policy options are most loving, that is, what ways of addressing poverty are most likely to help alleviate the problem.
Can you offer an example or two of Christians in a particular community who have offered "the most loving response" in concrete ways through local legislation?
Through my work for a congresswoman several years ago, I learned about a nationwide, grassroots movement to address the issue of infant abandonment. Local activists across the country became concerned when they read stories of newborn babies abandoned and left to die. One mom in Pittsburgh, for example, began a program with the cooperation of local law enforcement that allowed mothers in crisis a way to relinquish a baby anonymously, placing the baby safely in the care of the welfare system without fear of prosecution. In less than a decade, the work of similar local programs in a number of states led to the enactment state laws across the country to try and save the lives of newborns who would otherwise be abandoned and left to die.
Where I live, local activists stood up for religious freedom when the County Board sought new restrictions that would have impeded the development of new houses of worship. When the board originally sought to prohibit new churches and mosques from meeting in residential areas, religious leaders expressed their concerns. The board relaxed the proposed restrictions, finding a way to address legitimate concerns about traffic, utilities and other community issues while also allowing religious groups to meet in homes or buy property in residential areas.
Based on your research, at this moment in U.S. history, what area of public life—education, the library system, local commerce, and so on—should Christians most focus on improving through local legislation? What is in most need of reform?
Although other issues are no doubt important, I think that education is the issue most in need of attention and reform. It is easy to assume that education matters only for parents and their children, but, in reality, providing all children access to high-quality education improves the quality of life for everyone. Education helps reduce poverty, crime, and other social ills, and it provides a gateway to employment, healthy living, and productive citizenship. We need to be champions of high-quality education for all and vigilantly seeking reforms and opportunities to improve the quality of classroom instruction and high-school graduation rates.