What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—April 5, 2017

We are living in interesting times. I can remember in the late 1990s having several conversations with progressive friends about the future of Christianity in the United States. Some of my friends thought we were heading into a time of diminishing interest in Christianity and diminishing influence of Christians on the wider society (it is interesting that today, it is more likely to be Christians on the right who worry about Christianity being marginalized in the United States).

Then George Bush got elected and proceeded to help bring the Christian Right closer to the seats of power than ever before. In the years since, for better or worse, Christian politics has remained a significant presence. And then, of course, with the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the strengthening of Republican power in most of the states in our nation, evangelical Christians seemingly heightened their stature and may well now be on the cusp of achieving some of their long sought policy goals—not least the repeal of Roe v. Wade and a return to the criminalization of abortion.

There are other Christians who have strongly opposed the close ties between the Republican Party and American Christianity—including, actually, a growing number of evangelicals. It is even possible to imagine that this moment of seeming unprecedented influence for the Christian Right might in time be seen as a turning point in weakening the broader connection between evangelicals and Republicans. Donald Trump stands for so many values that seem antithetical to traditional evangelical morality that it is difficult to imagine that he will be able to retain the support of all that many.

An interesting book

I just read a book about Christianity and politics that has stimulated more thinking for me. Keith Giles, currently pastor of an outside-the-box congregation in southern California, recently published Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb (Quior, 2017). I recommend this book if one if interested in seeing how the evangelical consensus favoring blind support for the Republican agenda is being questioned.

Giles is a birthright evangelical, and this book clearly emerges out his disillusionment with the Christian Right. In a nutshell, he poses “the pursuit of politics” in the contemporary United States as contradictory with a pursuit of the genuine gospel. His agenda is to encourage those who seek to follow Jesus to turn away from a quest for political power. He sees the quest for a “Christian America” as terribly misguided.

Authentic Christianity, as Giles understands it, does indeed hope to contribute to social transformation. But it is not a transformation effected by top-down, state-oriented power but by conversion to Jesus as savior. “Presidents and politicians have much less power than the average Christian when it comes to transformation…. The Gospel of Jesus is still the most effective weapon against evil, corruption, violence, hate, fear, and every other sin known to mankind…. Let everyone know that Jesus is the best Leader anyone could ever have” (p. 185).

There is much that is attractive in Giles’s argument. Certainly, his critique of the Christian Right and its embrace of the American Empire is helpful. I sincerely hope that many evangelical Christians read this book. I can’t help but think it would be better for American Christianity and the country in general if Giles’s position gained many adherents—even if I don’t actually agree completely with his constructive agenda.

Reading Giles stimulated me to think more about the different ways Christians approach politics in the United States. Feeling a bit playful, I decided to create a chart that maps various approaches that Christians have taken in recent years. This is a serious exercise, but not one to be taken too seriously. The “map” is only a quick (and superficial) sketch. But perhaps it has potential to serve as an aid for understanding.

Charting Christianity and Politics

We may talk about four tendencies in relation to Christianity and politics. They may be placed in four corners of a square that combines two spectra. The first spectrum, which moves from left to right, measures how explicitly people draw on the message of Jesus, his life and teaching. To the reader’s left would be people who are more focused on Jesus’s message and to the reader’s right would be people who are less focused on Jesus’s message. [I need to emphasize that “left” and “right” here do not correspond with typical ways of thinking about “left” and “right”—for example, there are Christians considered liberal who are on the right in this map.]

The second spectrum, which moves up and down, measures how engaged in “politics” someone is. Towards the top of the chart would be people who are quite engaged, and towards the bottom who people who are less engaged. By “politics” here I have in mind engagement in public policy issues, involvement in direct advocacy favoring or opposing governmental decisions, and partisan, electoral politics.

The upper right corner of the chart is what I call the “Constantinian” approach. This approach could be taken by people who are labeled liberal and those who are labeled conservative. What they have in common is a quite positive view of the use of state power. They would tend to define being “political” especially in terms of exercising governmental power and are actively engaged in trying themselves to exercise such power. Though people with this approach are self-identified Christians and hence might refer to Jesus, they do not as a rule shape their approach to “politics” by the actual message of Jesus—they would be more likely to understand Jesus mainly in personal terms as savior, not as a political model.

The lower right corner of the chart is what I call the “Passive Civil Religion” approach. This would not so much be a self-conscious view as simply an acceptance of whatever the government does, an affirmation of patriotism, and a generally passive approach to “politics.” That passivity may or may not involve voting. Such people also would tend not to think in terms of their religious faith when thinking about politics. Jesus’s message would, in practice at least, be mostly irrelevant to political engagement.

The lower left corner of the chart is what I call the “Sectarian” approach. Here, the core conviction would be that following Jesus matters the most and that this involves not being involved in “secular politics” in any direct way. This is not a passive approach in that Jesus’s message is a call to works of service and compassion—but not engagement in governmental work or partisan politics.

The upper left corner of the chart is what I call the “Anarchistic” approach, which is to be more engaged in “politics” and to emphasize the message of Jesus. Anarchistic views for Christians would directly engage “politics” but with a strong emphasis on reflecting the message of Jesus. Hence, these views would tend to be suspicious of state power, positive about decentralized ways of people self-organizing, deeply concerned with social justice, with wars and militarism, and with the distribution of wealth and power, for example.

I have sketched a chart to illustrate the different tendencies. Without doing any new research and basing my suggestions simply on general impressions, I have listed various Christians on the chart. My hope in this not-very-serious exercise is to try to give suggestions of how combining these two themes (Jesus and “politics”), might illumine our current political scene. In what follows, I will explain why I put people where I did.


For a larger version, please open this file: grid

Christians in our political world

Constantinian. The upper right quadrant includes people who place the priority on governing (or hoping to govern). Politics in this quadrant is especially the politics of rulers. In the far upper right Christians are people who closely identify Christian faith with seeking to exercise political power in the United States. This includes liberal (e.g., Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi) and conservative (e.g., Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin) as well as conservative religious leaders and thinkers (e.g., Franklin Graham and the journal First Things). There is little talk about the political relevance of Jesus’s life and teaching.

I thought of a few representative Christians who are politically active and seem to want to have Jesus play a somewhat larger role than those closest to the upper right corner. However, they still seem to me (perhaps) to emphasize governance slightly more than Jesus’s message. The five people I mention are quite diverse—Shirley Chisholm (note the misspelling on the chart) was a liberal U.S. Representative while Peter Leithart is a conservative theologian. Jim Wallis, on the Christian Left, and Russell Moore, on the Christian Right, may both be too far to the right side of my chart as both certainly seek to take Jesus’s message seriously. I do think especially of Wallis’s best-selling book, God’s Politics (2006), the most recent of his writings I have read, where he expresses a desire that socially conscious Christians hope to “find a seat at the table” of governing power, a role he seems personally to have sought after Barack Obama’s election. I’m only guessing on the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore.

Carl F. H. Henry (died 2003) was a leader among American evangelicals in the mid-20th century who predates the more recent strongly political emphases of the Christian Right since the late 1970s. Henry did advocate Christian political involvement and did not spend much time looking at Jesus’s life and teaching for guidance for social ethics. To some degree he is closer to the apolitical fundamentalism prior to the rise of the Moral Majority (which I mention below), though I’d put him slightly above the center line divided the more from the less engaged in “politics.”

Passive Civil Religion. In the lower right quadrant, I mainly have in mind the many Christians who mostly go along with their governmental leaders—especially when it comes to the possibility of going to war. These “people in the pew” may vote (either Republican or Democrat) but do not engage politics much further. Many don’t even bother to vote, making up a significant portion of the 40% of American voters who sat out the 2016 presidential election. A term that has been used of such people in the past is “Silent Majority.” They tend to be vaguely patriotic and to be church members, but are not engaged. And they are not particularly interested in applying Jesus’s message to social life in any direct way.

I tried to imagine a few representative illustrative people for this quadrant. I don’t know much about Joel Osteen, but I have the sense that he pretty much avoids either overtly political engagement or very specific emphases on Jesus’s teaching’s relevance to social ethics. Earlier similar figures could be Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller—popular preachers whose messages were along the lines of approaches such as “the power of positive thinking” and “possibility thinking” that were decidedly apolitical and atheological—just vaguely Christian.

I slipped Billy Graham narrowly into this quadrant. Though he was famous for consorting with presidents, and surely was exploited for political gain especially by Richard Nixon, Graham fairly convincingly insisted that his counsel was purely spiritual and not “political.” His connections with presidents did not seem to undermine his reputation with many liberals as well as conservatives as America’s (apolitical) preacher of the pure gospel.

I have included what I call “pre-Falwell Baptist fundamentalists” just inside the left edge of this quadrant. These would be the kind of people I knew back in the 1970s before the rise of the Moral Majority and Christian Right who were largely apolitical, but more serious about the message of Jesus than the typical member of the “silent majority”—albeit generally interpreting the message of Jesus in a pretty non-“political” way.

Sectarian. In the lower left quadrant would be people who in a general sense place the Christian community as central and see the “secular” political realm as secondary for Christians. Those closest to the corner would affirm a kind of two-kingdom theology along the lines of the 16th-century Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession that asserted that the state operates “outside the perfection of Christ.”

I placed Goshen College historian John Roth pretty close to the corner not out of knowledge of his general political philosophy but strictly in reference to his 2004 paper on why believers “might conscientiously refrain from voting” (see also a discussion of Roth’s ideas in the June 2005 issue of Mennonite Life). It would likely be more accurate to include communities of conservative Mennonites and Old Order Amish in this spot rather than Roth if we are thinking of a general political philosophy.

Mother Theresa, with her profound emphasis on service to “the least of these” would also be an example of a Christian view devoted to close adherence to the message of Jesus with little interest in “politics.”

I have put the other people listed in this quadrant (Rod Dreher [author of the Benedict Option], Greg Boyd, Stanley Hauerwas, and Rachel Held Evans) due to my impression of various of their writings that seem to diminish the sense of responsibility for the wider political arena in favor of a stronger emphasis on working in the church.

Anarchistic. The upper left quadrant would be people who combine a suspicion of state authority with an optimism about the possibilities of engagement in social ministry in ways that remain consistent with the message of Jesus. The people closest to the corner would be Christian Anarchists such as Dorothy Day and others in the Catholic Worker movement. Day and the Worker not only sought to practice a Christlike generosity and care for vulnerable people but also actively witnessed against war, the death penalty, nuclear weaponry, and other social injustices.

I also include several important African-American church leaders and political activists who also have combined suspicion of state violence with optimism about the possibilities of social witness—such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornel West, and William Barber. As well, I include Daniel Berrigan as representative of the radical pacifist strain of American Catholicism.

Catherine Keller squeezes in in the upper right corner of this quadrant as someone who remains a bit suspicious of state power and interested in the message of Jesus while also advocating active social engagement. In the lower left corner of this quadrant are John Howard Yoder and the New Monasticism. They place a very high priority on the message of Jesus and understand that to have significant political significance—mainly in the form of public witness to God’s concern for peace and care for vulnerable people.

[Disclaimer—I want again to emphasize that I likely made many mistakes in placing various people where I did. I only named names here in order to try to make the exercise more concrete and hopefully understandable. I do not mean to put any particular person or group in a box or to pretend that I am accurately representing people’s political philosophies. So, while I am open to corrections concerning particular people, the kind of feedback I am most interested in are responses to the general schema.]

Writing that is to come…

A widely noticed book that I am guessing will be a version of what I’m calling “sectarian” tendency has just been published—Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. I plan to respond to this book in some detail in the weeks to come.

I also hope soon to return to my long dormant series of posts on an anarchistic reading of the Bible. That will be an opportunity to develop more fully the approach above that I am most attracted to, the “Anarchistic” tendency. And hopefully in the months to come I will finish a (small) book length discussion of Anarchistic Christianity.

11 thoughts on “What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts

  1. This is engaging, Ted; it gets my mind running. Thank you!

    An axis defined by fidelity to Jesus’ message is likely to generate lots of arguments right off the bat, which I take to be a disadvantage. For instance, I’m wondering if Wm. Barber and MLK represent the anarchistic stance; they seem to fit better in the Constantinian quadrant. But that can only happen by first showing their weak fidelity to Jesus’ teaching.

    And should HIllary Clinton and Russell Moore be in the same quadrant?

    I’m tinkering with another grid around a horizontal axis defined by one’s view of salvation (temporal/communal vs. metaphysical/personal) and a vertical axis defined by one’s view of state power (positive vs. negative). That yields four quadrants (Imperial, Nieburian, Utopian and Quietist) and maybe less argument about which quadrant is an appropriate fit.

    Marxists and cynics of all stripes (including fascists and corporatists) fit in the Imperial quadrant; monarchists and republicans fit in the Niebuhrian; Orthodox Jews, some Muslim streams, Mormans, Benedict Op, maybe the Amish fit in the Utopian quadrant; old style fundamentalists, old style Mennonites and Mother Theresa fit in the Quietist quadrant.

    1. I like your grid, Berry, though I don’t know where I would place myself (or you, for that matter, or John Stoner). The “temporal/communal” and “negative” quadrant would seem similar to my “anarchistic” quadrant—but none of the examples you cite seem very close to my views (or how I perceive your views).

      1. Ted, I’ve spent most of my adult life in the “Niebuhrian” quadrant. That is, I have committed much time and energy to concerns of public policy, but retained throughout a strong sense that all of that/all of us remain accountable to divine judgment as shown to us in Messiah Jesus. Pretty familiar stance, right? And a good place to be.

        As the imperial character of the US becomes clear to us, we also take more seriously the biblical model for the integration of “salvation” and attitudes toward the state (what my schematic calls “Utopian”). It focuses on the saving and transforming power of a communal witness that is faithful to YHWH.

        So theoretically, I’ve been moving in that direction (the “Utopian” quadrant). Problem is, the group I am part of (Mennonites) have drunk deeply of the individualism of the West and can no longer even comprehend (much less sustain) a coherent communal identity, wisdom and witness.

        So my imagined move toward the “utopian” inclination is incoherent. You’re right; I’m stranded.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. I like the “playful” approach, and seeking to place people in the quadrant. It happens I’ve recently posted the first of a 2-part series on “Calexit” (as seen by a theologically progressive Californian), in which I’m working on the 2nd section now. Your quadrant may stimulate some things that will be useful to include.

    I was pondering on where I might place myself in your system. A little puzzling in that I’m sure not much of a political activist but I DO actively seek to apply my Jesus-following in my voting and other minor political activities…. prime of which may be just writing about it all :). So, in terms of “theory” at least, I’d see myself well up and left in “Anarchistic”, though I’ve never identified with that term (though more with your description). But in actual use of my time and my focus, I presume I’d be in your “Sectarian” quad.

    One influential writer/speaker I’d wonder where you’d place is someone who is also very strong on analysis and calling others to action, though I don’t know if or how he spends his efforts in direct action re. politics. That is Brian McLaren. He’s also interesting in how theologically progressive he is while still claiming (last I knew 2 or 3 years ago) to be “Evangelical”, though he MIGHT want that to be in lower case.

    1. Just off the top of my head, Howard, I’d place McLaren just slightly above Hauerwas but below the line separating anarchistic from sectarian.

      Given the energy you have put into thinking about “politics” since we’ve reconnected, I’d put you in the middle of the anarchistic quadrant. How’s that for a quick, uninformed assertion?

  3. The basic dimensions of this model seem to be (a) seeking or avoiding the use of force, (b) going or not going public with one’s values.

    I suppose that theology is not sooo much important in all this. As for the use of force, few people have decided views about that. The weaker one sees the victim, the more one would be prepared to use force for its sake.

    As for “going public”, isn’t this mostly a difference between the college-educated and the not-college-educated? The college-educated are self-assured and wont to speak about their ideas in public (and are less considerate about what their ideas will bring about in the real lives of the average Joes).

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