Week 5—What Christians Should Do For Government: Engage with “Convictional Kindness”
Editor’s note: This is a manuscript from Jonathan Leeman’s class “Christians and Government,” which he is currently teaching through at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. There will be 13 weeks in the class. Here is the course schedule, to be published as it’s taught.
What Christians Should Do For Government
What Christians Should Ask of Government
Week 6: To Not Play God
Week 7: To Establish Peace
Week 8: To Do Justice
Week 9: To Punish Crime, Tax, and Defend the Nation
Week 10: To Treat People Equally (Justice and Identity Politics)
Week 11: To Provide Space for True and False Religion
Week 12: To Affirm and Protect the Family
Week 13: To Protect the Economy
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Written by Nick Rodriguez and Jonathan Leeman
Over the last several weeks, we have considered how Christians should approach the public square. Last week in particular we thought about the call to both obey the state but also to work for it’s good with whatever stewardships God has given us in government, which most of us have as citizens of some nation. I said that, ordinarily, there’s a responsibility to vote and persuade. I even said that you should do what it takes, within the bounds of morality, to try to win the case, win the vote, win the argument, for the sake of love and justice. Before we turn to considering the work of government itself in the second half of the course, I want to spend one more class thinking about how we should engage in the public square, whether as a person who works in government, as a political advocate, or simply as a citizen.
The very short answer to the “how” question, and the title of today’s class, is a phrase borrowed from Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He says that political communication and cultural engagement in the life of the Christian should take the form of convictional kindness that aims to fight for the right things and to persuade others toward them. That’s our main idea for today.
Let’s start by unpacking why that is.
OUR PLACE AND OUR TEMPTATION
Christians are increasingly out of place in modern politics.
Much of Christian influence (such as it is) in American politics today is a happy accident that dates all the way back to the founding. Most of the founders weren’t believers, but they followed a tradition that had important points of overlap with Protestant theology, particularly as regards the worth and dignity of individuals. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” reads the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .” The founders would have disagreed on who that “creator” really was, but they got to a similar conclusion as the Christians who populated the young nation.
This gentlemen’s agreement between Protestant Christians and Enlightenment thinkers resulted in the America we know today—a place that has afforded broad freedom to Christians both to worship and to influence politics, while the nation itself adopted rhetoric and trappings that were “Christian-ish,” if not actually Christian.
Within that framework, Christians have gone through cycles of intense political engagement and disengagement. Most recently, the so-called “Christian right”—which evokes names like Falwell, Robertson, and the Moral Majority—played a major role in American politics.
But if this gentlemen’s agreement has occasionally created the illusion that America is a Christian nation, more recent events remind us of the truth: like any other government, it is established by God, but can never be a substitute for His kingdom. And like any other government, it can over time become better or worse at doing justice.
Remember that the Christian right arose mostly in response to the social and moral excesses of the 1960s and 1970s: the sexual revolution, the legalization of abortion on demand, and the growing permissiveness of the culture. And more recently, it’s become even more clear that American values are not necessarily Christian ones: a strong majority of the country, for instance, now appears to support same-sex marriage. As Moore puts it, “As the sexual revolution whirls on, it is no longer possible to pretend that evangelicals represent the ‘real America.’”
The truce between evangelical and Enlightenment thinking seems to be coming to an end. What does that mean for how a Christian engages in the public square?
As I see it, it appears we are tempted into three different errors:
We’re all tempted to retreat into disengagement or even isolation, while also deciding we must only focus on the kingdom of heaven and leave the earthly kingdoms to their sin.
The problem with this, as we’ve learned earlier in this course, is that the world doesn’t divide neatly into personal and public spheres. Our personal actions—or lack of action—have public import. The name of Christ is at stake in each thing that a Christian does or doesn’t do. And God is sovereign over both private and public life, and so demands that we show him obedience and glorify him in both.
In the Bible, we see this most clearly in the example of the prophets, most of whom were called to speak God’s truth to societies that were deeply immoral, even collapsing as a result of that immorality. With some of those prophets, the societies repented—for example, Jonah and Nineveh. For many others, they didn’t. But regardless of the outcome, God demanded faithfulness from his people in speaking the truth. So it is in America: we’re called to bear witness to God’s truth even if—especially if—we are called to be in the minority on the issue at hand.
More practically, consider some of the costs of disengagement:
- We’ve already mentioned how Christian disengagement during the periods of Nazi rule in Germany or apartheid in South Africa did damage to Christian witness.
- Here at home, consider the white evangelical church’s failure to more actively support the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Such churches has been at a deficit of credibility on issues of racial reconciliation to this day.
- On the more positive side, consider how much longer the slave trade might have persisted if not for the activism of Christian abolitionists in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. And consider how many more unborn would have been murdered if not for muscular activism in the pro-life movement in the last several decades.
Our engagement has real-life consequences, and our engagement’s consequences impact our witness to the world. I’ve given you examples of straight-line issues, but this is true on jagged-line issues as well.
So, we have to avoid disengagement. The other error we have to avoid is surrender. This surrender may manifest itself in two ways: a capitulation to the preferences and values of the majority or, more insidiously, an attempt to accommodate these preferences in a way that ultimately undermines God’s truth.
This has variants across the political spectrum. On the left, consider the “social gospel” that captured many of the mainline Protestant denominations last century. These churches redefined their core beliefs in an attempt to accord with a culture that couldn’t see past this life to the next and so emphasized only action in this life. The result was a catastrophic loss of biblical gospel preaching and teaching. Similarly, I would exhort Christians on the political left not to accommodate the Democrat Party position on abortion. Fight against it. Make noise.
On the right, consider the choice that Christians in Republican politics will likely soon face when their party sees the writing on the wall, acts in its own electoral self-interest, and reverses its position against same-sex marriage. How terrible a witness would it be if Christians simply accommodated that shift for the sake of political convenience?
The bottom line here, as we’ve said before, is that Christians should never be seen as putting their hands to anything that runs contrary to what God commands. A good model for this comes from Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who, in effect, were high-ranking government bureaucrats. But when King Nebuchadnezzar sets up an image of gold and commands everyone in his kingdom to fall down and worship it, they say to their boss in Daniel 3:18: “Be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
And so it is that we must also not bow down to any God the government or the culture sets up for us, even if doing so will win us favor from men. As Christians, we cannot surrender to prevailing attitudes; as the winds change, our message must stay the same.
3. Worldly engagement
The third type of error is to engage in a way that’s right on substance, but not quite right on strategy or tone. As Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner document in their book City of Man, the Christian right in its heyday often warrants criticism on this front. The movement stood up for the right things, but its language tended to be apocalyptic, giving earthly political outcomes—a vote on a law, an election, or a Supreme Court case—an outsized importance that ironically made God and his will seem smaller and less sovereign.
The movement’s tone also could be off-putting. A sample quote from Jerry Falwell: “Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to evangelical Christians.”
As a result, the movement was always at risk of being seen as just another arm of a particular party—in this case, the Republican party. An outside observer could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that the Christian right was the tool of a distinctly non-Christian ideology.
The Christian right advanced some important causes, but there were also unintended consequences, as Gerson and Wehner write:
In combination, the various failings of the religious right—of tone, strategy, theology, and simple human sympathy—abetted a social backlash that goes beyond politics. By the 1990s, argues Robert Putnam, the politicization of religion by the religious right was causing many young people to turn against religion itself. Their attitude seemed to be, “If this is religion, I’m not interested.” Today, Americans in their twenties are much more secular than were the Baby Boomers at the same stage of life. . . . The religious right, it turns out, was not good for religion.
The basic lesson here: when Christians engage in politics, our engagement should look different from the engagement of any other interest group. In short, it should be marked by convictional kindness.
ENGAGING WITH CONVICTIONAL KINDNESS
So what is convictional kindness? It’s convictional in that it’s rooted in the revealed truth of God. It’s kind in that it seeks to understand, even sympathize with, and persuade those who oppose you. So how do we do this?
1. Approach the public square with the right heart orientation.
As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 12:34, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Before we utter a word, we should think about the heart posture that we bring to the conversation. In his article How to Survive a Cultural Crisis, our senior pastor Mark Dever helps us think about this. He gives us seven principles, which I’ve excerpted heavily from his article to describe here.
- First, remember that churches exist to work for supernatural change. The whole Christian faith is based on the idea that God takes people who are spiritually dead and gives them new life. There’s never been a time or culture when it was natural to repent of your sins. From that standpoint, recent cultural changes have made our job zero percent harder.
- Second, understand that persecution is normal. Persecution is what Jesus promised us. So to the extent that we respond to change in our culture with panic or alarmism, we are contradicting the Bible’s teaching about ordinary Christian discipleship. In effect, we’ve traded on the normalcy of nominalism in America (the gentlemen’s agreement), when in fact it’s anything but normal in history. We should expect persecution and not be surprised by it.
- Third, eschew utopianism. As a people of love and justice, Christians should strive to make our corner of the world a bit nicer than the way we found it, but we must remember that we’re not going to transform this world into the kingdom of our Christ. Again, to the extent that you’re alarmist about cultural changes, it shows that you may have been somewhat utopian in your hopes for this world.
- Fourth, make use of our democratic stewardship. Paul tells us to submit to the state—and in our democratic context, part of submitting to the state means sharing in its authority. If we have a share in its authority, we just might have, to some extent, a share in its tyranny. So to neglect the democratic process is to neglect a real stewardship we’ve been given. So while we reject utopianism, we do what we can with the tools we’ve been given.
- Fifth, trust the Lord, not human circumstances. There has never been a set of circumstances Christians cannot trust God through. Jesus trusted the Father through the cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). Remember that nothing we face will amount to what our King had to suffer. And as we trust him, we will bear a beautiful testimony of God’s goodness and power, and we will bring him glory.
- Sixth, remember that everything we have is God’s grace. Simply put, anything we receive less than hell is amazing news for Christians. We need to keep that perspective so that we aren’t tempted to become too sour toward our employers, friends, family members, and our government when they oppose us. This is why Paul was able to sing in prison: he knew that of which he’d been forgiven. He knew the glory that awaited him. He perceived and prized these greater realities.
- Seventh, rest in the certainty of Christ’s victory. Remember that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ. We need not fear and tremble as if Satan has finally, after all these millennia, gained the upper hand in his opposition to God through the same-sex marriage lobby. “Oh, we might finally lose it here!” No, not a chance. People around the world now and throughout history have suffered far more than Christians in America currently do. This is not reason to assume that Satan has the upper hand. Remember that God’s kingdom has already been inaugurated. D-Day, as it were, has already happened, and we’re in a long period of cleanup. So there need not be any anxiety or desperation in us as we engage in public life.
2. Remember that good political communication has much in common with good Christian communication.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it should. Good political communication has much in common with good Christian communication, and even simply with good Christian living. There are at least three dimensions to this.
First, think about the witness of your life and works. In Matthew 5:14–16, Jesus says:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
In the same way, Peter admonishes Christians in the early church in 1 Peter 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
The integrity of the messenger matters. While none of us will ever be perfect, does your conduct before the world mark you as a credible spokesperson for Christ— as you do good works and are humble and repentant about your shortcomings?
Second, consider the quality and tone of your speech. James 1:19–20 gives us the lesson we need in any speech, not just that related to politics: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Paul puts an even finer point on it in Colossians 4:6: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
If you participate in social media, how would you describe your tone? Does your tone on Twitter or Facebook edify and convey care? Or does it lambast and belittle? How will your tone affect your evangelism? Do you let your emotions get the best of you, and are you quick to anger with those who oppose you? In today’s polarized climate, not getting angry may, by itself, mark you as someone whose hope is in something completely different!
Of course, there are times and places in which sharper, more direct rhetoric is called for. Jesus calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” But even when you do this, it should be more in sorrow than in anger—calling out a clear truth but taking no joy in it.
Third, seek to persuade rather than score points. This may sound trivial, but it’s not; you can tell the difference between political speech that’s designed to convince others versus a speech that seems designed to shore up those who already agree and alienate those who don’t.
One clear indication that you are simply seeking to score points is painting the other side in the worse light imaginable, particularly by pointing to a couple of worst-case-scenario anecdotes. I sometimes hear whites do this in America’s race conversation, for instance. They will point to egregious instances of minority criminality. When the minority responds by pointing to egregious instances of racist behavior among Whites, the White consoles himself by thinking, “Well, I’m not like that.” Wait a second, but the minority individual is like that criminal individual? I understand how you win a debate: you make the other side look awful. The trouble is, it’s not a Christian tactic, and it only alienates the side that knows they are being misrepresented.
One flip side of this, by the way: just as you should aim to persuade, you should be genuinely open to persuasion. Not on the most important things, of course—there are principles to which you’ll be holding fast. But remember that in most cases, if the person you’re engaging with has some common ground with you, they may (probably) know things you don’t know. This is especially true when you’re in what we’ve called jagged-line or wisdom territory.
Remember what we said earlier in the course—on matters of wisdom, we can expect non-Christians to have competencies we don’t have. They may understand cause-and-effect relationships in economics better than we do. They may have a scientific background that informs our thinking about energy policy. They may understand the situation on the ground in Ukraine more fully than we do. In cases like these, humility demands we engage in genuine inquiry, and admit the possibility that, even if our principles are not wrong, the way we interpret or apply them may be. Not only is this the right thing to do; it will have a marked effect on how we are perceived.
This is also true in conversations between Christians about politics. One of the sweetest things for me about teaching this course in that past has been the opportunity to regularly dialogue with others about the various issues we’ve covered. A couple weeks ago I sat in Pret-a-Manger and received a number of useful critiques from one of your fellow members about a class I’ve already taught. It’s too bad for you I didn’t get those critiques before I taught the class!
3. With these things in mind, practice convictional kindness.
So much of convictional kindness is wrapped up with what it means to live as a Christian: right conduct, right speech, and a desire to persuade and bear witness to the truth of God’s Word. That being said, there are a few more tactical things worth remembering as we engage in the public square.
First, remember to say true things.
This may seem obvious, but it must be the starting point. Proverbs 12:22 reminds us that “lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” Are the arguments you’re making true? Or, if the truth is disputed, do you sincerely believe the arguments you’re making?
One example of this is the issue of climate change. If you truly believe the science does not support the idea that humans are causing climate change, then make that argument. But if you do believe the science, and your real reason for opposing regulation is because you think the costs aren’t worth the potential benefits, you can’t call the science into question just because it’s a more convenient argument. More broadly, does your desire to “succeed” in the political arena tempt you to blur the line between spin and untruth? Are you in a job where there’s constant pressure on you to tack toward the latter? These are reasons to examine your situation and think about how you can change it.
Second, discern between more and less essential things.
Remember the difference between law issues and wisdom issues. You’re going to speak more clearly and categorically on the issue of, say, defending unborn children, or denouncing racial injustice, than you are on, say, Obamacare, or how we should prosecute the war against ISIS. On those latter issues, you may have a strong opinion, but there should be more room in your rhetoric to find common ground with your opponents and to acknowledge the validity of their perspective.
Third, put yourself in the shoes of your audience.
What is their worldview? How does what they believe rationally follow from their worldview? What’s the common ground, and what are the differences? To take an extreme example: there are pro-choice people who honestly believe that an unborn child in the first trimester is not yet a person. There are others, by contrast, who believe the child is a person, but that the mother’s “rights” to her own body trump that personhood.
Depending on who you’re dealing with, your path to persuasion will be very different. The first person may actually completely share your premise about the sanctity of life; they just disagree with you on what constitutes life. The second person, by contrast, is a different conversation entirely—about the relative good of a right to life versus a right to make choices of convenience.
Fourth, care for your audience.
Look for places where there is common ground, and affirm it (For example: “We both believe life should be protected.”) Show empathy for, or at least an understanding of, where they’re coming from (“I understand how, if you think that something isn’t a life, it doesn’t have any rights.”) And gently, but firmly, point out the differences and invite them to understand things from your point of view (“But here’s where I disagree. I believe life begins at conception. With that in mind, I imagine you can understand why I draw the conclusion that any abortion is murder.”)
Fifth, use their reasons where you can, but be clear about yours as well.
I’ve spoken before about the importance of being pragmatic—you can use secular reasons to make your case, as long as they are true and/or you believe them as well. Think about how Paul reasoned with the Gentiles differently than he reasoned with the Jews. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, he says “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” In your discussion with your pro-choice friend, you might cite evidence from science and biology to show that life begins at conception. At the same time, however, ask yourself where there is an opportunity to point your audience to Christ. Ultimately, you believe life begins at conception because the Bible says so. Is there a way to make that clear, and thus bear additional witness?
One note about all this: most of these principles are aimed at conversations with non-Christians, but they apply in conversations between Christians as well. The frame here is different, because you start from the assumption of the same worldview, even if your interpretations may vary. Even as you discuss differences, keep affirming unity in the gospel and in Christ, and rejoice in that. The way we talk with each other about politics will reflect something very important to the watching world.
A Christian’s engagement in politics has both higher stakes and lower stakes than you might initially think. The stakes are higher in the sense that we’re all duty-bound to represent Christ well in the public square. Both the words we use and the results we achieve are a part of the solemn work of glorifying God and enjoying him forever. But the stakes are also lower, in the sense that no political result on this earth is final.
In the end, convictional kindness parallels the Christian life as a whole: we make sincere efforts to persuade others to our point of view. But we do not fear losing, because we know our God has already won, and that every political result that plays out in this life—every election result, every law passed or not passed, every change in cultural consciousness—is under his sovereign control, and will be worked out for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. This knowledge liberates us to be the kind of happy warriors that are always faithful, and often (with God’s help) effective.