American Christians are increasingly aware that the church has a political image problem, and are increasingly eager to repair it. Association with the Religious Right, the once-dominant political machine whose public credibility seems to be in steady decline, is quickly becoming a source of embarrassment for all but the most conservative congregations. Several studies have attributed declining participation in organized religious communities to the politicization of churches. In their 2012 book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons report that two-thirds of young non-Christians and half of young Christians consider the church “too involved in politics.” Their research reveals that 110 million adult Americans—including half of conservative Christians—are concerned about the role of conservative Christians in politics.
The problem is not only with the Christian Right, of course. The Christian Left has also failed to articulate a political vision compelling enough to attract broad support among the faithful. As the recent Pew Research Center study reports, the religiously unaffiliated—or “nones”—have jumped nearly 7 percent over the past seven years, now forming 23 percent of the American population, many of them leaving left-leaning mainline congregations. And as political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell report in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, one of the most significant reasons that “nones” cite for not attending church is that churches are “too political.”
American culture teaches that politics is fundamentally about partisanship. Therefore, as long as the church looks to the state or the media to define and model politics, its political imagination will be stunted by an overwhelming ethos of partisan rivalry, and its political identity bound to a framework of partisanship. In the absence of a compelling alternative model for faithful Christian political engagement, churches often fall into one of two traps—avoiding politics entirely, or pledging allegiance to a particular issue or party.
Both responses reflect a poor understanding of the political nature of the church itself. What Christians cannot escape is that the church they read about in Scripture is in fact deeply, inherently, and inescapably political. Jesus’ ministry began with the proclamation of the good news of a coming kingdom, and ended with his execution at the hands of an empire threatened by his own quietly confident claim to kingship. Jesus’ life was about inaugurating a new kingdom, an alternative political order, to be embodied in the world by his church. As theologian N.T. Wright puts it in his book How God Became King, “Jesus’ launch of the kingdom—God’s worldwide sovereignty on earth as it is in heaven—is the central aim of his mission, the thing for which he lived and died and rose again.” This is a different sort of king—and a different form of politics—but it is unmistakably political.
Politics, we contend, is really about the authority we recognize, the citizenship we claim, and the values we hold to as we pursue a vision of the common good with and for our neighbors. And like the political powers of this world, Jesus claimed authority, demanded allegiance, and offered a citizenship that relativizes his followers’ relationship to other political orders. If the church is an inherently political body—a community defined by its allegiance to the authority of the king, its citizenship in a new world, and its call to pursue a new way of life with and for its neighbors—then perhaps its call is not merely to run from the language and activity of politics. Maybe the church’s call is something deeper: to embody and witness to a different type of politics.
While many scholars have examined the ways churches engage in political activity, these treatments are often limited by a thin definition of political activity, locating the political only in partisan endorsements or policy advocacy from the pulpit. They also tend to focus too heavily on armchair theology, removed from the lived experience of churchgoers. If theology is to be truly in service of the church, it needs to pay closer attention to what is actually going on in churches.
It was this conviction that led us, just as the 2012 election season began picking up steam, to embark on a journey to explore the ways churches engage and avoid politics in the midst of a fraught political climate. Employing a style of theological research and writing called lived theology, we visited churches, talked with church leaders, participated in church meetings and events, and reflected on our observations. During these visits, we caught glimpses of ordinary practices that have the potential to help the church build a new political imagination.
We began our project at Saddleback Church, just a short drive from the wide sandy beaches of Southern California. Five congregations, thirteen plane rides, two stolen iPhones, and nearly two years later, we concluded our research in the middle of a Polar Vortex in Atlanta, thankful to finally retreat indoors, sift through hours of interviews and pages of notes, and begin to answer our core questions: What does it mean for the church to be political? How should the church make decisions about when to engage or avoid politics? And what visions of politics are communicated by the actual practices of congregations—their lived theologies?
Churches all over the country embody this new political imagination every day, whether they realize it or not. Take Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta, which established partnerships with Catholic Charities USA, local government, and secular nonprofits to serve its inner-city neighbors. Or First & Franklin Presbyterian in Baltimore, whose congregation reads aloud the names of people killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—from both sides of the conflict. Or Saddleback Church in California, whose medical missionaries were so effective that they were asked to testify before Congress about global healthcare strategy. These actions may not seem political in the way we have been taught to understand that word, but each demonstrates a way that churches allow their allegiance to Christ’s mission to break down dividing walls and offer a vision of the kingdom to their congregation, their neighbors, and the world.
These ordinary practices (and many others like them) show that the church’s response to an overly partisan public arena need not be to join a camp, nor to abandon politics altogether, but to orient its allegiance toward the only political reality that transcends parties and nations, tribes and tongues, cultures and generations. The church can learn to understand politics not fundamentally as divisive, but as a framework that unites believers in allegiance to a common king and kingdom. And maybe—just maybe—churches that take this posture could find greater unity with people who do not share their ultimate allegiance, by identifying and pursuing common loves with and for them.
Many American churches are understandably ambivalent about calling their everyday practices “political.” But we submit that claiming their practices—indeed, their very communal identity—as deeply political might help churches more faithfully integrate their goals of spiritual formation and social transformation, and thereby witness to a world weary of politics that an alternative, even redeemed, political vision is possible.
The churches we visited accomplished this in several different ways. Some tended to avoid discussing important social or moral issues for fear of being “too political.” But when they recognized the deeply political character of all of the church’s activity, they were able to recast the act of taking a stand on controversial issues not as an act of allegiance to a party, but as an act of allegiance to the God they call Lord. A church that is radically secure in its political identity is free to engage controversial issues all over the political spectrum without the crippling fear of being pigeonholed as “conservative” or “liberal.”
For churches (both left-leaning and right-leaning) that tended to align themselves too closely with a particular party or overemphasize a particular political issue, recognizing the depth and breadth of the church’s political mission could keep them from a disordered allegiance to party or issue. This might helpfully broaden the church’s imagination about the kinds of political causes it should support, or the kinds or partners it could work with.
For churches that overlapped with both categories, understanding the church as deeply political might help leaders harness the formative power of their congregation’s practices. Regularly performed practices of worship and mission shape members’ lives and their beliefs about the nature of God, God’s kingdom, and their role in it. N. T. Wright argues that “practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works … Our conscious mind and heart need to understand, ponder, and consciously choose the patterns of life which these practices are supposed to produce in us and through us.”
Before Christians too quickly allow another political ideology rooted in partisanship to fill the growing vacuum left by the Religious Right, perhaps they ought to take this opportunity to reimagine what it means for the church to be political. Cultivating a political identity rooted first in Christ—one that pursues compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and protection for the weak as an expression of faith in and allegiance to Christ—might free Christians to engage in politics with a renewed spirit, confident in the knowledge that their hope is not in candidates, parties, or laws, but in the God they believe is making all things new. As missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin writes in Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History: “Christians [ought] to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair.” For the church, perhaps healthy political engagement is not about staking out real estate on the American political spectrum, nor about retreating behind feigned political neutrality, but about orienting allegiance to Jesus before any nation or party, claiming and prioritizing a common citizenship with Christians around the world, and working, humbly and persistently, to love and serve their neighbors.
Sam Speers and Kristopher Norris are co-authors of the book Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church, from which this article is adapted. The research for this book was funded by The Project on Lived Theology.