Evangelical Politics

Posted on June 20, 2008


Krista Tippet from American Public Media mediated a fascinating multi-generation discussion between Chuck Colson, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne on the subject, “Evangelical Politics” at the National Pastors Conference in San Diego, April 2008. You can see the transcript here, (and photos here).

For anyone wrestling with what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the context of Democracy ought to take a good listen to the struggles, the conflicts, and the pervading commonalities between these three representatives of Evangelical Faith.

Listen, read the transcript, and then consider my thoughts and reflections below.

1. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR POLITICS AND RELIGION TO BE PURELY POLITICAL OR RELIGIOUS; THE TWO ARE PERHAPS DISTANT COUSINS FROM THE SAME GREAT-GRANDPARENT. Tony Campolo has said (referenced also by Claiborne) that mixing politics and religion is like mixing manure with ice cream — it does very little to the manure, but it really ruins the ice cream.

I offer the analogy of mixing closely related genetic material. Early on in the Creation story, mating between relatives was not a problem. [1] However, as time moves on, as aberrations begin to skew the genetic material, the mixing becomes more and more dangerous over time, and in proportion to proximity. I suggest that this kind of mixing may explain how politics gets mutated into some sort of religious platform for one-issue crusades and perverts religion from piety to ideology. The two are (closely?) related, coming from the same family, and just like every Thanksgiving, they will sit around the same dinner table, and engage about life within the family.

Politics and religion are always going to go hand in hand, and this conversation is just another example of how there is no pure segregation of the two. For those who purport that religion and politics ought to be separate entities of life (as it seems Boyd is on the verge of doing, and Claiborne seems to simply avoid — the full implications thereof), that positioning is dishonest. Accepting the reality of both is actually necessary and informative of both.

2. THE JESUS WAY IS NOT THE WAY, BUT A DIVERSITY OF WAYS. Contrary to popular theology, when it comes to these kinds of issues, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to utilize the stories of Jesus as test- or type-cases for contemporary behavior in our context and milieu.

When Colson references the “render unto Caesar” [2] passage to substantiate his reasoning for military service, or when Claiborne simply says, “that’s what I love about Jesus,” both are examples of what I’ll call “innocent eisegesis.” That is to say, reading into a text, or making a text say something that it was not intended to say. We must be very careful in pointing to the form of behavior and the literalism of the teaching as the higher value of the text over the principles and the basic human truths that are being taught. And, we must recognize that our reading is an interpretative stance, not “what the Bible says,” per se.

Now, I know that people of faith do this all the time, and hermeneutics is a very in-depth discipline that is covered by countless books and articles and talks. What we can conclude, fairly confidently, is that the way of Jesus is the Way, but not the only way. That is to say, what Jesus taught us is brilliant because how He lived can be adapted and translated across time and culture, and we are reaping the benefits of that brilliancy in the diversity of expressions in religion, politics, faith, justice, etc. today.

Krista Tippet said it well in the interview, “To be ‘Evangelical’ is not one thing.”

3. THE FINAL RUBRIC FOR GOOD POLITICS OR GOOD RELIGION IS SHALOM (שלום). They disagreed well, with care and thoughtfulness. Their engagement will continually be different and paradoxically compatible, even in their mixed messages. Each of these three leaders will educate their followers well when it comes to exemplifying true discipleship in the voting booth. And above and beyond them all, there are values and issues that are transcendent to the discussions.

The ultimate of those is the peace of God, the making of all things new, the “putting to rights,” and restoration or reconciliation of all things, the (עולם הבא) “Olam HaBa,” (the world to come), the “new heavens and new earth,” the “Shalom” of God, wholeness, and completeness. As we strive to figure all this stuff out, may we all be inspired and challenged to hold this up, along with love, as the greatest of the commandments when dealing with politics, religion, and the dysfunctional family we are all a part of.

[1] I would like to do some more work on this, so anyone who has a genetic reference that charts this, I would greatly appreciate the reference.
[2] Mark 12:13-17