Is there wisdom in the call to keep our religion and politics separate? Or not? There are some voices saying very loudly that if you’re a true Christian, you will always vote Republican. Others get more specific and say that those who don’t vote for Donald Trump in this election are not true Christians. Both of these statements are wrong at best and idolatrous at worst. Does that then mean that we must keep these two spheres separate? That our religious beliefs have no bearing on our political involvement? I don’t think that’s the right approach either.
In truth, our politics and our religion shape each other. But not in the way the Christian voter guides seem to believe. It’s not about telling you which measures and candidates fit a Christian worldview. It’s more a matter of being formed by Christian worship and letting our constantly formed selves engage in the political process. I’ll follow some of James K.A. Smith’s thoughts on how this plays out.
As the Church, we gather regularly to be reminded of the deepest realities: that we have been created in the image of God, that though we are broken and unable to heal ourselves, Jesus has sacrificed himself on our behalf and offers us healing and forgiveness through his death and resurrection, that he is the ultimate King and Judge who will someday right every wrong and establish a perfect society. So when we engage in these deep realities as the Church, we are renewing our minds (as Paul says in Rom. 12:2) and reshaping the core of our being, so that when we step into political engagement of various types, we step in as people shaped by the Gospel and the community of Christ. Again, this is so much deeper than being told which candidate is supposedly the “Christian choice.”“We’re told that true Christians vote Republican. Can this really be a Christian approach to politics? Politics and religion shape each other, but not like that. We are shaped by worship, which then forms our engagement.”
Picture yourself in a Church gathering. When we read, preach, and meditate on Scripture, we are reminding ourselves that there is a true King infinitely higher than any public official, that there is a higher allegiance that trumps all others, that the Good News is a proclamation of a specific King and Kingdom that we can never equate with any person or proposition on a ballot. We remind each other that “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). We once again fill our imaginations with narratives of God leading the weak to victory and of Jesus forgiving those who attacked him. We are reminded of vital truths like sin and forgiveness, holiness and justice, humility and love, peace and patience, and so many others.
This continual reading and rereading of Scriptures refines and shapes us on an ongoing basis, and this process fits us for political involvement in a way that reading the denominational voting guides never could.
When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we are invited to a meal (of sorts) to which everyone is invited. We are formed by the sacrificial act that this meal commemorates. Jesus’ self-emptying sacrifice plots a path forward for the manner of our own political engagement (along with every other aspect of our lives). As those who regularly take Communion, we don’t battle for dominance, we find ways to serve, to consider other people more important than ourselves. We are reminded that though we must roll up our sleeves and get to work in every area of society, what ails us most deeply is ultimately healed by the blood of one who died and rose again.
When we gather for worship, we form an assembly that gives a picture to our own selves and the world around us that we are citizens of a different kingdom. In that kingdom, the weak are the strong, the greatest treasures are hidden in frail earthen vessels, and the last are first. In this kingdom, we are taught to wait on the Lord, not to accomplish our own ends in our own timeframe at any cost. Christian theology has always carried the tension between the already and the not yet. Already we have been united to and transformed by Christ. But we are not yet experiencing that reality as we one day will. Christ’s kingdom is already here, but its fullness has not yet arrived.
Worship keeps us from following the tactics of others around us, who work themselves to the bone in desperation, who labor in fear, who have no outside help to lean on in seeing their ends made real, who make use of negativity and fear and manipulation to accomplish their goals.
And when we leave our gatherings, we are sending one another back into the world with a reminder of the mission that has always been ours.
Above all, Christian worship reminds us that our allegiance lies in only one place. We place of faith in Jesus. Ultimately, faith is not a what word; it’s a who word. It’s about pledging our allegiance to Jesus. That does not preclude political involvement in the kingdoms of this world, but it should make us think twice about what it means to pledge our allegiance elsewhere.
Notice that in this post, I’m not calling us to do something extra. I’m calling all of us to lean further into the things that are already there. If we let these things shape us more deeply, if we allow the impact of our Christian worship to extend to every aspect of our lives, not just our Sunday morning selves, then every element of our political engagement will be deeply formed by Jesus—whether others consider it “Christian” or not.