Just as the pandemic has exacerbated the problem of Christians being more shaped by online pundits than in-the-flesh pastors, it has also intensified political tribalism. With few places to converse other than our online communities, the levels of vitriol and contempt have risen to insufferable levels.
It’s been painful to see the church in America follow the national discourse. In my social-media feeds, I’ve witnessed church members tear each other apart over politics, forgetting that we are committing spiritual cannibalism as we choose partisanship over unity in Christ. As an Asian American pastor, it’s been fascinating to observe how Asian American culture, previously apathetic toward politics, has now morphed into one characterized by fierce political discourse. Watching old college friends—who never expressed political opinions before—suddenly waging virtual war on Facebook regarding justice (on both sides) reveals just how all-consuming politics has become.
With few places to converse other than our online communities, the levels of vitriol and contempt have risen to insufferable levels.
Perhaps the most troubling thing I see is that many Christians now seem more certain of their political opinions than they are of Christ and his kingdom.
Political discourse today—even in the church—is characterized by the brash confidence each tribe or ideology brandishes. It’s the certainty that my political views are correct and can be supported in Scripture (often with some exegetical gymnastics), and yours are heretical and blasphemous. Even in the church, the warning of former New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss rings true in 2020: “Truth [is no longer] a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
As each camp believes its viewpoint is foolproof, perceptions of and accusations toward the “other side” become increasingly brazen, graceless, and prone to nuance-free caricature. For some on the right, any pastor who speaks about social justice is immediately labeled a Marxist. For some on the left, the slightest defense of President Trump, or even just holding a baby of a different ethnicity, exposes your white supremacy.
How did we get here? How did it come to be that many Christians seem more confident and outspoken about their political ideology than the Christian gospel? Why do many Christians seem more at home in the “family” of their political tribe than in the family of God?
In Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis says Christians mistakenly see their political camp as merely an opinion or ideology about how policies should be shaped. On the contrary, though, each political ideology is “based on a specific soteriology—that is, on a worked-out theory promising deliverance to human beings from some sort of fundamental evil.” In other words, politics can often become an idolatrous substitute religion with fundamentalist zeal, as David French points out is occurring on both sides of the American political spectrum.
While the political religions of the left and right may contribute some astute observations regarding our cultural moment, the overconfident hubris of both tends to ignore the reality of sin’s corrupting infection of every individual, culture, and political system—no matter how right we feel. Political solutions won’t ultimately be our salvation. If we start thinking they will, we’ve put our trust in a false god.
None of this is to suggest that politics is unimportant or that we should “just preach the gospel” and ignore racial injustice, the plight of the unborn, and other social ills that political action can help redress. I only want to suggest that Christians ought to approach politics with radical humility, guarding against the brash certainty and overconfidence that leads to idolatry.
Our favored political camp might be right in identifying the problems of the time, but Christians should be wary of a rigid certainty that our political camp is totally correct—and the other side totally wrong—on their proposed solutions. As Jonathan Leeman writes in How the Nations Rage, “As Christians, we should be the first to stop self-justifying and the first to self-indict when necessary. Our prejudices and biases are so natural that repenting of them is a lifelong project.”
Christians ought to approach politics with radical humility, guarding against the brash certainty and overconfidence that leads to idolatry.
As the 2020 election nears, rather than following the world in putting our confidence in politics, let’s instead put our confidence in Christ. Rather than yelling loudly at each other with off-putting certainty in our rightness and the other side’s idiocy, let’s instead heed Paul’s call to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3).
How can we do that? Here are three brief suggestions.
1. Be slow to post, quick to pray.
If the apostle James were writing in 2020, he might have considered adding “posting” in parentheses to James 1:19. Instead of rushing to social media to rage about injustice, police reform, mail-in ballots, or whatever the issue du jour might be, what if we turned first to prayer and meditation on Scripture? One way to guard against political idolatry is to let political discourse point us back to the simplicity and sanity of spiritual disciplines—allowing the Word and the Spirit, instead social media and cable news, to guide our responses to the crises of our time.
2. Be more certain of your failures than others’.
It’s a constant temptation in today’s partisan world to think the absolute worst about our opponents and to assume we can better read their motivations than they can. As Arnold King notes in The Three Languages of Politics, “We [often] go so far as to believe that we understand our opponents better than they understand themselves. . . . The only person you are qualified to pronounce unreasonable is yourself.”
It’s a constant temptation in today’s partisan world to think the absolute worst about our opponents and assume we can better read their motivations than they can.
Rather than taking a prosecutorial posture toward our opponents, Jesus summons us to first investigate ourselves (Matt. 7:1–5). As Christians, we should be the first and loudest to point out flaws within, even if it marks us “disloyal” to a political tribe. Be most certain of your own shortcomings; extend grace to those who differ.
3. Be certain of Christ.
I’ve fallen into all the temptations outlined above. I’ve often started to place certainty in a candidate, political ideology, or policy. Why? Because I lack a robust certainty in Christ. This election season invites me, and you, to not only weigh arguments and candidates, but to also ultimately assess the state of our faith. Is our certainty found in our Savior? Or are we more certain of our politics? Are we more loyal to Jesus and animated by his mission than we are loyal to a candidate and animated by their campaign?
For the sake of our witness during (and after) the election season, let’s not be remembered as grandstanding mouthpieces for a political ideology, but a people humbled “under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet. 5:6–8). May we be loudest about proclaiming Christ, the Lord over every earthly tribe.
The Gospel Coalition