Pictures have frames to separate them from their surroundings, to help the eye distinguish the picture from the noise of the background. The frame helps us see the picture for what it really is.
When we discuss politics from the Christian perspective, we do well to ask what should make up the edges of the frame — what are the boundaries? What are the limits? What distinguishes Christian political discourse from secular discourse?
And there are several things, including —
1. The Lord Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah of prophecy, sitting on the throne of David and ruling over the entire universe. Even kings must answer to Jesus.
In a democracy, many people have power, and so many people are like kings — and they are all subject to the authority of Jesus, the Lord of lords and King of kings.
Of course, many kings and many people in power have no idea that they are called to serve Jesus, but Christians do. Therefore, it’s especially important that Christians vote, campaign, and lobby as servants of the one true Lord, the only true lord and king. We can’t be selfless, compassionate Christians on Sundays and selfish voters on Tuesdays.
2. “Love your neighbor.” In many respects, the central command of Christianity is love for our neighbors. And we are to be known as God’s people by our love for each other and for those we encounter. We are even required to love our enemies!
Therefore, very early in any political conversation, the question must be asked: what does love require?
And often, the apostles express love in terms of personal sacrifice and service for others. Indeed, selfishness is specifically prohibited to Christians — and yet American politics are almost always framed in terms of selfishness. We must not be very noble people, because our politicians find they best get elected by appealing to our self-interest.
3. “All nations.” Another fundamental of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord of all nations and that our love can have no national boundaries. This is made unmistakeably plain in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, of course — but it goes all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham, in which he promised to bless all nations through his seed.
Christianity is meant to overcome racial, national, and ethnic barriers, forming all God’s elect into a single nation, a single people. And this principle is so ancient and so central to God’s purposes that we must consider it among the most non-negotiable of the non-negotiables.
Therefore, any political conversation has to be framed in terms of: Does this separate or unify nations? Does this smack of racism?
4. The widows, the fatherless, the alien, and the oppressed. We are called, of course, to love everyone, but God points us toward those who are most vulnerable and needy, because they are most in need of the service and sacrifice that our love calls us to. Therefore, these are the ones closest to the heart of God, and so they should be the closest to our own hearts.
A democracy can be particularly tough on the vulnerable of society, as they often do not vote, and certainly have no money to give to politicians. Therefore, someone else has to stand up for them.
There are two ways for this to happen in a democracy. One way is for a political party to add them to its political coalition in hopes of gaining power through the force of numbers. And this works — to a degree. But it has certain inherent problems —
* There will be others in the coalition with desires that run contrary to the needs of the oppressed. If the oppressed can only act through the party, they may often be forced to take half a loaf — or much less — just to hold the coalition together.
* The coalition may come to take them from granted. As Machiavelli said, keep your friends close — and your enemies closer. Or as the political consultants like to say, “S***w your friends. Where else can they go?”
* The aims of the political structure may not be to help the needy, as much-needed “tough love” may not be politically expedient. The political system may well encourage very self-destructive behaviors just to win the next election.
* The other party becomes the enemy. Why help people who aren’t going to vote for you or give you money no matter what? Polarization is a serious problem for the oppressed — and a nearly inevitable result of coalition politics.
In America, the party that tries to bring the oppressed and needy into its coalition is the Democratic Party, and Republican politicians feel no incentive to help those who vote Democratic. Indeed, they sometimes feel compelled to make them pay a price for supporting the wrong party.
Conservative, white churches tend to be Republican. Liberal white churches tend to be Democrat. Black churches are essentially all Democrat. And, as a result, when the conservative white Christians get together for political purposes, it doesn’t occur to them to think about low-income housing, food stamps, or laws that protect the poor from predatory practices.
In the Republican world, the free economy is sufficient protection, because they have the resources to make choices. (For example, and it’s not an absolute truth, of course, but it’s the poor who are most concerned with laws to protect tenants against unfair practices by landlords. The landlords have no interest in such laws, and the wealthy renters have options that force the market to treat them more fairly.)
So what’s the solution? I’m generally an economic conservative and prefer small government — but I’m no libertarian. I’ve seen enough crime and fraud to appreciate the value of wise government regulation. The market doesn’t cure all ills. Sometimes the market is stupid. Sometimes it’s evil.
Nor do I believe that the American political system always produces the best results — because it’s predicated on competing selfishness. Two parties compete for power by making promises that appeal to our self-interest. It’s amazing that it ever works at all, and sometimes it actually works remarkably well. But not always and not for everyone.
So here’s a plan —
1. The church — white and black, all denominations — unifies to pursue the mission of God in each community. Soon, the church develops not only a passion for the needy in its towns, it develops a deep compassion, because the members know the poor and needy by name and they know the problems they face each day.
2. From compassion comes both credibility and wisdom. Anyone can argue for the poor, but it’s the people who’ve sacrificed time and money to serve them and who know them personally who have the credibility to speak for them.
3. The church stands outside either political party and, instead, speaks with the authority that comes from commitment and experience on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves.
The church speaks for aliens who can neither vote nor contribute to campaigns — but the church speaks what’s best for all, not necessarily what the aliens want, but what love compels. And the church speaks for the unborn, for orphans, and the disabled. Again, the church isn’t the unpaid lobbyist for the powerless. Rather, the church speaks whatever God’s will is for the powerless.
In reality, in a democracy, a united church would be extraordinarily powerful. Imagine a voting block that includes all Christians! The key, therefore, is not to use that power on behalf of the church or for the wealthy within the church but for the weak and vulnerable of society — fulfilling its natural, prophetic role to speak God’s counsel to the nation’s rulers.
Now, God’s counsel is not always what the poor or the powerful want to hear. God expects people who want to eat to work for their food if they are able. And it’s not loving at all to support laziness or irresponsibility.
And, in fact, it’s not always obvious what laws or policies will be wise. Good people can differ. Somtimes the church needs to resist the temptation to argue specifics (which we so love to do!), and instead speak in generalities.
Does this make the church pro-immigration or pro-welfare. Maybe. Maybe not. After all, we are supposed to love all our neighbors, not just the poor. The church doesn’t blindly advocate for the poor regardless of the consequences to the rest of society. Rather, the church does what it can to make Congress and the state legislatures aware of the needs of weak in society and offers suggestions for meeting those needs in ways that best for us all. It’s about wisdom and judgment..