“Baptists” and Politics
When I tell Christians in the mainline denominations (like Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.) that I grew up Baptist, I tend to get reactions ranging from horror to pity. Among non-Baptist American Christians, Baptists seem to have a reputation for “turn or burn” evangelizing tactics, homophobia and misogyny, a history of racism, and a host of other undesirable characteristics. The most recurring criticism of “Baptists” that I’ve encountered is that Baptists care more about conservative political values than they do about Jesus.
The Baptist churches and organizations that I grew up with weren’t that kind of Baptist – at least not the blatantly Republican kind. I would guess that the majority of the Baptists I knew voted mostly for Republicans, but the subject of politics was politely avoided in sermons and small group meetings.
It’s as if I grew up with self-conscious Baptists who, afraid of being mistaken for the Republican-loving Baptists, tended to stay out of politics altogether. We talked about our relationship with God, changed hearts, and spreading the gospel. Our solutions to the big-picture problems with America and the greater world was to transform individuals from the inside out.
The Unavoidability of Politics
I’m happy that I didn’t grow up in a church that reduces Christian faith to American nationalism and conservative political views. I think that it is a good idea to leave the highly complicated matters of public policy out of generalizing sermons and Sunday school lessons that always tend towards oversimplification. But staying out of politics altogether doesn’t make much sense to me, either.
Consider this quote from one of my favorite books, The Crucified God:
“When [churches] regard themselves as being either unpolitical or apolitical, this is only because of the blindness which their social position inflicts on them.”
In a democracy (and perhaps in all other political systems), it is impossible to stay out of politics. If I attempted to not participate in politics by not voting, I would merely be silently supporting the status quo. And as Moltmann argued back in 1972, the illusion of non-participation is only possible among the privileged citizens whose interests are largely protected by the existing political structure.
But even if it was possible to avoid politics, a faith that loves its neighbors wouldn’t want to stay out of politics – at least in theory. After all, politics have a big impact on the lives of many, especially the less fortunate (AKA “the least of these”). And let’s not forget that Jesus himself was crucified – a punishment that the Roman Empire reserved for those who dared to challenge the established Roman structures of power and honor.
An Example: Poverty and Homelessness
I am certainly not the most politically informed person in this county, so I’m very hesitant to make a hard-and-fast connection between Christian faith of any sort and a specific political viewpoint. With that being said, a particularly glaring example of the flawed disconnect between politics and [some forms of] faith is poverty and homelessness.
As far as I can remember, all of the churches that I’ve ever attended have been involved in some sort of poverty-related ministry. Many churches are invested in providing food, shelter, and clothing to people who need them. Yet in my experience, many of these ministries are able to avoid the glaring question of why there are so many needy people in the first place.
If there are, in fact, big-picture political changes that can reduce the rates of poverty that we see around us, then a faith that cares about others must be involved in pursuing those political goals. At the very least, a comprehensive poverty-related ministry with a genuine interest in providing for the most vulnerable members of our society should encourage its participants to consider the relevant political issues and take them into consideration while casting their ballots.
In conclusion, I am very suspicious of any supposedly straight line from Christian faith to a particular political party. Yet I am equally suspicious of a supposedly apolitical faith because a faith tinged with love cannot afford to avoid politics, even if such a thing were possible.