Our world is torn and in need of healers; broken and in need of reconcilers; upside-down and in need of individuals willing to bleed to set it upright. This is true in every realm: the classroom and the home, the concert hall and the shop. It is true in the public square as well, from City Hall to the halls of Congress.
In recent decades, the record of Christians in the public arena has been decisively mixed. Leaders of deep faith have played central roles in many triumphs for justice and mercy, from the fall of the Iron Curtain and the remarkable success of welfare reform to ongoing battles against human trafficking and global AIDS.
Yet the glowing moments are often matched in dismal counterweight by the political activities of Christians who, in the words of Cal Thomas, “adopt the worldly tactics of those who appear to prefer political power to real power . . . There is nothing in their political behavior that would compel people who do not believe in the God they claim to worship to begin a journey in search of Him.”
So it is that in every era, Christians called to speak and act in the public square—as Congressional staffers, issue advocates, local officials and national leaders—must revisit the ponderous questions as to why and how we are to reflect the character of our Lord amidst the rough-and-tumble of political life.
In short, we require an ever-renewed vision for Christ-hearted civic engagement: an approach that is both resolute and gentle, serious yet winsome, confident without being triumphalistic, and realistic yet full of ideals. It inspires allies, perplexes foes, and captures the hearts of honest onlookers regardless of their political views. More than anything else, it points continually beyond us to the justice, mercy and humility of Jesus.
Faith births vocation: the question of why
In reaction to the worst elements of Christian political involvement in recent years, some leaders have understandably urged in the other direction—favouring withdrawal from the public square to focus on ministry or other “Christian” endeavours. Some of these critiques are spot-on, reminding us of a truth that every politically active Christian would do well to inscribe on their desks: changing hearts is far more important than changing laws.
Yet wise believers in every era have gripped this principle tightly—understanding the limits of political influence while still exercising it wisely. William Wilberforce was one of the best. When the young rising star in Britain’s Parliament yielded his life to Christ in 1786, he grappled with whether he might advance God’s purposes more fully from the pulpit. Former slave trader John Newton persuaded him otherwise. Urging Wilberforce to remain in Parliament, Newton wrote, “You are not only a representative of Yorkshire, you have the far greater honour of being a representative for the Lord, in a place where many know him not, and an opportunity of showing them what are the genuine fruits of that religion which you are known to profess.”
Over the decades that followed, Wilberforce brought his faith-born convictions to bear on a host of political issues. As biographer Kevin Belmonte describes, Wilberforce never lost his conviction that “attempts at political reform, without changing the hearts and minds of people at the same time, were futile.” He embraced a call that included both. After a lifetime of travails, Wilberforce and a band of his close friends ultimately ended Britain’s slave trade—winning first the hearts of the populace, and then ratifying heart-change with laws abolishing one of history’s greatest evils.
The Christ-centered vision that motivated Wilberforce and his friends has been at the center of many of history’s greatest moments: from America’s abolition movement to the valiant stand of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, from the daring nonviolence of the Civil Rights movement to current reconciliation efforts in post-genocide Rwanda. In all of these movements and countless others like them, the good fruit the world ultimately came to admire grew from a deeper taproot. It was the same source that fed Moses, Joseph, Deborah, David, Esther, Daniel and Nehemiah.
At the heart of this conviction pulses the vibrant confidence of the Psalmists: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) Such a perspective knows nothing of a secular-sacred divide that isolates “religious” activity from the sleeves-rolled-up activity of daily life. Rather, it joins Abraham Kuyper—who laboured in the political system of the Netherlands for decades—in affirming that not a square inch of creation should be abandoned. Despite the profound brokenness of our world, Christ calls out over even the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government, “This is mine! This belongs to me!”
This understanding is not diminished, even when we live among people much at odds with our faith and values. Like Jewish exiles in Babylon, we are to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Jeremiah’s audience may have protested that their pagan neighbours were not “worthy” of such efforts; yet, in this lies the beauty of the call. It embodies what theologians call “common grace”—God’s lavish blessing extended to all without qualification.
“Common grace” is a love note slipped under the door of an unexpecting world. Its beauty, serendipity and profligate generosity bear witness to God’s deepest character and affirm His loving heart toward all He has made (Psalm 8, 19, 145). In doing so, common grace constructs signposts pointing even the most prodigal homeward (Acts 14:15, Acts 17:23). To labour in the public square for the public good is to join God in this work, true children of the One who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.” (Matthew 5:45)
This is the key to our identity in political engagement: the Christian enters the public square as an agent of common grace. Alongside any other objectives he or she may have stands the central purpose of bearing witness to God’s character, affirming His loving heart, and pointing wanderers toward home. Whether combating human trafficking or merely setting prudent speed limits, our labours are done to bring goodness to others in a way that continually attests to the reality of a loving Creator.
Terms of engagement
My own introduction to the world of politics came through California State Senator Tim Leslie. I nervously joined the line to meet him after his rousing conference address. But rather than merely glad-handing the skinny kid in front of him and moving on, Senator Leslie invited me to his table for lunch. Over the meal, he asked me questions as thoughtfully as if I’d been the Governor. Then, wonder of wonders, the Senator invited me to visit Sacramento in a few weeks to spend a day “shadowing” him around the State Capitol.
We started that day at 6:30 a.m. over breakfast with a San Francisco Assemblyman, reputed to be the most liberal in the Legislature. Senator Leslie was one of the most conservative. But as he explained to me afterwards, “I think the most important thing I can do is show sincere love to each person in the Legislature, especially the ones I agree with the least. I think that’s what Jesus would do if he were a Senator. That’s at least as significant as any laws I’ll make.”
When rooted in confidence in a God who will ultimately set this broken world right, our approach to politics diverges radically from the norm. The fundamental difference is this: For the Christ-hearted, means are more important than ends. Why? Because whatever noble ends we seek—imperative as they might be—may never be reached. The only thing we can know for sure is that the way in which we pursue those ends will always either affirm God’s goodness or obscure it.
This doesn’t mean a Christian in politics cannot engage conflict with vigour, any more than a Christian in the NFL needs to play patty-cake on the field. It means the Christ-hearted will treat every adversary with respectfulness and love normally reserved for honoured friends. He will do all he can to keep the door to relationship open and inviting.
For me, little choices have been key in trying to live this out. Years ago, when I was a chief of staff in the California Legislature, a deadlock on the State budget brought animosity between the two parties to the boiling point. Our office decided to host staff and members from both parties for donuts and coffee each Friday. It was a small thing, but seemed to melt anger and enable relationship in ways we’d hardly expected. To this day, I remain friends with many of the “opposition” I met on those mornings.
Does placing first priority on means imply we don’t care about ends? Absolutely not. We want to improve foster care, reduce pollution and protect unborn life. The outcomes do matter, sometime a great deal. We have every reason to pursue them vigorously—as Lincoln put it, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
But final results, we know, are not ultimately in our hands. We may succeed like Wilberforce, who heard from his deathbed the church bells tolling the end of slavery in the British Empire. Or, we may end our lives seeing no more fruit from our labours than the countless faithful Christians imprisoned or even killed behind the Iron Curtain during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s for speaking out against communist oppression. This cannot be our ultimate concern.
We anticipate a day when justice will be total, oppression crushed, and humanity’s well-being complete. Yet we know the heart of humankind—our own hearts!—well enough to understand that, except in glimpses, no political system on earth is capable of ushering in such a world. Utopian dreams, attractive as they may be, do not hold us in their thrall.
Our role is to pray and act that God’s justice and mercy will be reflected, however feebly, within our realm of influence. This is the Kingdom of God breaking forth—already, and not yet. The completion of the work is in God’s hands. Our responsibility is simply this: to advance the causes we have been given in ways that consistently reflect the goodness, justice and mercy of God. This is success, whatever else transpires.
Building upward and outward
With such a Christ-hearted stance, and nothing less, we are prepared to venture into the tangled world of political engagement. The heart is the wellspring of life, as it says in Proverbs, and from here godly wisdom and grace begin to spill out into the particular policies and speeches, public stands and civic discourse that help shape the character of a nation.
Of course, the difficult questions do not end here. They begin in earnest, as over a lifetime of choices we apply eternal principles to transitory issues as complex as the human creatures they involve. Our identity as agents of common grace must grow continually upward and outward into all aspects of our vocation.
This confidence calls us to technical excellence. A Christian as a policy expert should know her topic as well as any; as a speechwriter should be known as a true wordsmith; as a legislator should fashion laws with the same excellence with which Jesus worked the hammer and lathe. As Dorothy Sayers said, “No crooked table legs or ill-fitted drawers ever, I dare say, came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.”
It also calls us to take policy choices seriously. They matter. Public programs to help the needy can relieve immediate distress, but may also strip personal responsibility and spawn dependence on government. Raising taxes funds critical investment in education, infrastructure and other priorities, but can also strangle job creation and private charity. Some issues, like slavery in Lincoln’s day and abortion in ours, carry unequivocal moral imperatives. But many others may call for a certain approach one day and another the next. If we are to exercise influence wisely, we must tenaciously grip enduring principles, while continually refining their particular application.
Finally, Christ-hearted civic engagement never views public stands as substitute for private actions. Last year, I visited the home of an AIDS patient in Lusaka, Zambia with Mike Gerson. As President Bush’s chief speechwriter and a devout Christian, Mike played a central role in championing creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). In 2003, less than 50,000 individuals in sub-Saharan Africa received the medicine they required to live. Today, thanks to PEPFAR, that number is nearly two million. Reflective of the President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative, PEPFAR represents not merely investment of funds, but a sea change in aid and development that focuses on building up indigenous response to need and local solutions.
The young woman we met that day had lost both her parents to AIDS. She’d cared for several younger siblings until the dread disease she received at birth took her to death’s door as well. World Vision and a local Christian organization, aided by PEPFAR, helped bring her back in what many call “the Lazarus effect.” But as we exited the one-room, brick-and-tin residence, our World Vision guide related the severe financial need the woman and her grandmother faced in reuniting the now-scattered family. It was an invitation, and Mike did not blink. He said nothing, but without pause took the contents of his wallet and slipped them into the guide’s hand. It struck me as true integrity: his public, political stance mirrored by the little-noted private act.
As we prepared to leave, something on the carrot-colored bricks of the home caught my eye. Three small words had been written by a finger dipped in teal paint. I’ll never know who wrote them, but Mike’s small decision that day—just as his world-shaping work in the White House—helped attest to their truth: God is love. May such be the legacy of all who join him in Christ-hearted civic engagement.