Expectations often determine how much or how little we will enjoy a profession, a hobby, or even a relationship. Too high, and disappointment ensues. Too low, and we are victims of ennui and lethargy.
This is true of politics. Some enter the political arena with expectations so high that nothing short of socio-cultural transformation – immediate, at that – will satisfy. And since such immediate transformation is impossible, their disillusionment is profound, and their tendency to leave the field wounded and angry (and perhaps a bit self-righteous) is great.
Sometimes, Christian leaders have encouraged the belief that if only we elect enough of the appropriate type of people, America will be re-born and become a place where, like Camelot, “winter happens only by decree.” The militant secular Left and its program of social dissolution will recede and a bright new dawn will spread across the land.
This is, in some ways, at least, a lovely vision. It is also an entirely preposterous one. We live in a fallen world and will never, through civic, legislative, or legal action, be able to scrub it of sin. No political victory is ever final, at least not in a nation where representative self-government means continuous contention for the hearts and minds of voting citizens.
The other extreme is equally as dangerous, and perhaps more seductive. Some Christians walk through the door of public life and quickly are intoxicated by power, a sense of being on the inside, a desire to be liked by the political elite, or simply by the carnal pleasures available to those willing to lose a home but gain a lounge.
Seeing this, many of their fellow believers decide to avoid politics altogether and remain in the ethically pristine worlds of business and industry, philanthropy and ministry. Yes, my tongue is glued firmly to my cheek.
Realistic expectations are essential for every Christian in every area of life, including politics. Christians carry a message of tempered hope. We cannot create the kingdom of God through political action. We cannot change human nature through enactment of just the right laws. We cannot eradicate injustice, oppression, falsehood, and social decay comprehensively and with finality.
But do these realities justify withdrawal from public engagement? Does the chronic imperfectability of humankind mean that we throw up our hands and, abandoning politics, content ourselves with being good neighbors and quiet evangelists, inured to the aches and pains of our crumbling culture?
Disagreement about essential moral values and their effect on public policy can be civil but it is never passive, weak, or trivial. Dissent can be courteous but usually also is steely. Should these realities discourage Christians from taking a public stand, advancing the good and defending the vulnerable?
We would all like political debate to be reasonable and respectful. We should strive to this end, while recognizing that politics is neither the pulpit nor the ivory tower. It’s the state fair, the crowded high school gym, the waterfront amphitheater. It’s loud and raucous, divisive and, sometimes, even cruel. Political rhetoric can hurt as much as heal. Politics is a high-stakes game, and its players can play very rough.
Christians who are offended by these things should re-think what they are expecting from politics – and also what the Bible says about life in society where sin is always present. Some believers seem to think that political involvement will mean earnest, quiet conversations over nicely-brewed coffee, and then, upon entering a campaign or a legislative battle, they are shocked – shocked! – that people can be mean, unfair, and even bad dressers.
Christians should never succumb to the hatred or falsity politics can encourage. Rather, we should bear witness to the light of Christ in an environment that urgently needs it. We should also approach political action soberly, realizing that just as we will not rid the world of evil in one fell swoop, nor should we allow the incremental character of political change to deter us from doing and standing for what is right.
For example: Some critics point to the fact that, nearly 40 years on, Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. Well, true enough. But does the failure to correct Roe mean that (a) the pro-life movement has accomplished nothing of value and/or that (b) Christians should shake the political dust off their feet and leave public stage entirely to unbelieving actors?
Since 1973, social conservatives have been effective in preventing federal funding of abortion services (until the president’s health care plan, that is), ending “partial-birth” abortion, enacting a measure to protect babies born alive after attempted abortions, made the killing of an unborn child during an act of violence a federal crime, promoted the now 2,000-center strong pregnancy care center movement, adopted children in ever-greater numbers, and enacted myriad pro-life laws at the state level.
Is this complete success? No. But it is the steady, unbending, and productive work of engagement in the boisterous, contrarian forum of ideas and action known as politics. This work is also bearing fruit in changing public judgment: Once a clear majority of Americans are pro-life, and we are trending that way, Roe’s days will be numbered.
The facts that political dialog can be poisonous and political action polarizing should not dampen wise and loving Christian civic action. Rather, these challenges present Christians with an extraordinary opportunity to bring “grace and truth” (John 1:18) to public discourse.
If in standing, courageously but with kindness, for some of those things closest to God’s heart – human dignity, the sanctity of life from conception onward, marriage between one man and one woman, and the religious liberty without which no other freedoms are possible – hostility becomes our lot, so be it. As our martyred brethren remind us, there are worse things than being unjustly disparaged.
As long as we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and speak and advocate the truth in love, we need neither pollute ourselves with political worldliness nor position ourselves outside of the public square.
We should not expect sudden, complete, and permanent change nor give into despair because such change is impossible. We need to be faithful and prudent, as wise as serpents, as gentle as doves, in the public square and the home group, the legislature and the fellowship hall. And this need mandates Christian civic engagement.
A mandate is not a request or a whim. Christians, let’s fulfill it.
Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president of the Family Research Council.
Publication date: September 20, 2012