The new evangelical non-partisanship

U.S. American news magazines think they have a hot new story.  Week after week they reiterate that U.S. evangelicals are changing, especially the younger crowd.  Governor Palin, for example, isn’t going to appeal to those concerned with the environment, says TIME, since she doesn’t believe humans cause global warming.  Increasingly issues of war and poverty are also on the radar for evangelicals, causing some of them to, *gasp*, even consider voting for Barack Obama.

This openness to new parties, does not necessarily mean a commitment to party or ideology, however.  I have yet to do formal research on the matter (maybe if I go to grad school for poli sci in another life), but my experience has kept the count fairly low. Evangelicals that disassociate from the Religious Right are rightly wary of partisanship, and many are also frustrated by a broken system in Washington that seems to spin its wheels more than it brings the meaningful change for which they yearn.

I know evangelical leaders that encourage the rejection of cemented party allegiances, emphasizing a loyalty to God that supersedes loyalty to party.  No party is perfect, they say, and each is a product of culture, not something directly created by God.   One might vote a certain way the majority of the time, or even partipate in “radical” activites (such a protesting a war), but it’s most important to focus on the issues that matter to God–whether they seem to paint you red or blue–and pursue righteous policies in those areas.

Others take this line of thinking to an extreme, which mixed with their jadedness, can be disastrous in the mind of a poli sci major like myself.  My dear songwriting buddy Derek Webb is quick to call out the United States for its domestic and foreign policies; in fact, at a concert at UNC-Chapel Hill this past Saturday night, he covered Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” in opposition to the Iraq War.  As you might have gathered, Derek and I care about a lot of the same things, but our approach to problem-solving is very different.  For example, a concert-goer says he spoke of voting almost as a necessary evil: “if you conscience lets you vote…”  He also encouraged people to get to know their neighbors (something I wholeheartedly recommend) in lieu of voting (a substitution I don’t).  This attitude goes far beyond Derek–I think most evangelicals today would rather sit and have dinner with the poor than fight for elected officials promising to fight poverty.  Politics doesn’t seem to work, they think, and it just created all this division and partisanship that left the evangelical community feeling oblivious or hostile towards issues of race, poverty, and the environment, to begin with.

But I completely disagree with Derek.  Politics doesn’t have to be broken, it doesn’t have to never work.  It, like most aspects of our culture can be redeemed and restored.  Politics can be a force for good, not evil.  Bureaucracy can even be used for good!  Power can be used justly and progress can be made.  Politics won’t save us any more than SUVs, microwaves, or Rihanna will, but politics can be used by God, just like SUVs, microwaves, and Rihanna.

And just logically speaking, if you believe, as evangelicals do, that there is a moral code that transcends humanity’s momentary likes and dislikes within particular cultural contexts, certain political parties must get more of that right than others.  We may disagree infinitely about which issues are important or which methodology is more effective or about how to decide between parties when none cares about all of “your issues” as much as you do.  But the fact is this: a certain party can (and probably does) have a moral edge over another, if not overall, at least when it comes to addressing particular subsets of issues in our society.

Let’s not demonize each other, and let’s not pretend to have things all figured out.  But let’s not pretend Democrats and Republicans are the same or that communism, conservatism, fascism, democratic socialism, or anything in between are in any way the same system.  They are different ways of seeing the world that must be evaluated based on one’s spiritual and philosophical sensibilities.  And if evangelicals believe the Gospel is the one stainless, scratch-free lense through which everything else can be properly viewed (even if no one seems to have perfect vision), I think they should be able to look at the cultural creations of these various ideologies, see none of them as perfect, yet clearly reject or embrace various aspects of each.  And if that’s true, it’s not just a matter of preference or a choice that we’re free to bypass.  It’s a gift and a responsibility to seek Jesus’s heart and vote (and protest and give and work and pray and speak and shop and dance and dress and drink) accordingly.

We may not always know how to do politics correctly, but I don’t think this is a neutral or irrelevant choice when it comes to kingdom-building.  Politics does real good and real evil in this world.  Let’s do our best to remain engaged, to possess a healthy dose of cynicism balanced by an overwhelming hope, and to take sides (based on issues, party, or ideology more broadly) when it makes sense.  After all, if someone didn’t take a firm political stand against slavery, apartheid, and other evils, where would we be today?

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4 Comments

Filed under Politics, Sociology, Sociology of Religion

4 responses to “The new evangelical non-partisanship

  1. Amanda

    so… a couple of things. First off, I was at the concert, and didn’t get the impression AT ALL that he was telling us not to vote. Most of his comments that night were exaggerated and over-the-top, and I personally didn’t take anything he said at face value. he was joking around with us a little bit.

    Also, regardless of whether or not he told us not to vote, he most certainly DID NOT tell us to get to know our neighbors IN PLACE of voting. He said simply that if we really wanted to change the country, getting to know our neighbors and investing in their lives was a good place to start. Which personally, I agree with him. That’s basically what Jesus did. He invested in the lives of 12 guys, knowing that 12 lives radically changed by his friendship could have a much more lasting impact than he alone could have in his 3 years of ministry.

    And lastly, “I think most evangelicals today would rather sit and have dinner with the poor than fight for elected officials promising to fight poverty.” Honestly, Ashleigh, I was really surprised to read these words from you. But surprised or not, I’m going to have to disagree with the suggestion you’re making with this statement. In my opinion, sitting down and having a meal with the poor could have a much deeper impact on their soul than actually lifting them out of their poverty. I’m not saying that working for systemic change isn’t valuable or necessary. I’m simply saying that poverty hurts more than just the wallet, and what the poor really need (and what all of us need, really) is for people to invest in them, to see them as fellow human beings, to care for them, not just out of pity, but out of friendship and a common humanity. Voting for elected officials that promise to fight poverty is a great thing, and I think we all should take that into consideration when we vote. But I don’t think it is the most important thing. A politician is just one person, and one person will never be able to change our society. Systemic change in this instance, from my view, is going to have to come from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

    Feel free to disagree. :)

  2. ashrebg

    To respond to the first half of the message:

    I obviously wasn’t there, s I don’t know his exact words or what he meant by them. I do know other things I’ve heard and read about Webb’s politics, though, and I think that despite his not necessarily actually wanting to encourage people not to vote, it does seem he overall sees politics as more corrupt and hopeless than I believe them to be. I think it’s fine to joke around, but I think there was some substance to his joke–something real there about what he believes. Of course, I don’t know him personally, so I don’t know the whole story… Hearing about the concert was just a jumping-off pt from which I could blog, something that raised a lot of questions and feelings in me that I wanted to expound upon.

    I also certainly don’t think he was saying getting to know your neighbors is better than voting, and yet… Evangelicals are already more comfortable with relationships than systemic issues–I just don’t know how helpful his comment was. At the same time, I’m a super-fan of community-building, and even though we’re MORE comfortable with relationships, I don’t think we’re very good at them either. I am really and truly thrilled for him to encourage people to know their neighbors (really)–we share the same heart in that regard. I just don’t want people to come away feeling that really is more valuable because voting and knowing neighbors are such completely different activities, that it seems hard to compare them in such a way. They’re not meant to be set up against each other but could both be valuable ways to follow Jesus. I don’t like anyone setting up that dichotomy, and that’s what it felt like Derek was doing, from hearing it second-hand. (Kate and I often respond similarly to how people say things from up front, so I’m guessing I would have felt the same way having been there. Of course I don’t know…)

    I’ll have to reply to the third paragraph of your comment in a little bit… I want some time to respond at least semi-thoughtfully, haha.

  3. ashrebg

    (Oh, and as evidence of what I said in the first par. of my reply–when Webb ended up endorsing a candidate, it was Ron Paul, the super-limited-government candidate. While by choosing to vote at all, he was making a political statement, in some ways, his choice was a retreat from politics/the possibility of using “the system” for good, in my opinion.)

  4. ashrebg

    Responding to the second half of your thoughts, Amanda:

    I definitely recognize that there are a lot of people whose view of change of incomplete–it’s only systemic, not personal. They can be an activist, a politician, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher… but keep their distance from the issues they champion. I completely disagree with this and think that both to stay informed and to stay down-to-earth, even just to stay compassionate, sorrowful, emotionally connected with the problems of the world, we need to really be in them.

    And like you said, people need a lot more than a distant poke. They need their humanity to be recognized by other humans, in ways that are sometimes not very “significant” in the scheme of things–when looking at the system at least–but are incredibly emotionally significant.

    I actually think evangelicals struggle with both sides of things here, but I find the systemic issues are the most easily ignored due to American individualism–which seems to be hard-wired. It’s not easy to break, especially for white people. I don’t think the answer is to be political only; I just really want to encourage holistic answers. We should be eager to share a meal with the poor, but why only that? We are probably all called to share a few meals and all called to a little political activism. And then some are called to a lot of one or the other. The church (people) as a whole, though, I think, needs to have a hand in everything, so if we’re so much MORE eager to show compassion one-on-one than to let our compassion push us into seeking reform of the original problem-causers, I think we’re not doing our job and following Jesus faithfully.

    I don’t know if that clarifies; I know it was a somewhat incendiary comment, but I don’t take it back. ;o)

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