What is the one thing, above all others, that God’s people must focus on amidst their concern about the state of American politics and public life?
I mean, there are so many potential answers to that question.
What We Could Say
We could focus on the need to eschew the tribalizing, polarizing, mocking, insulting, insincere, cynical political engagement modeled by radio hosts, TV pundits, and political candidates. Instead of imitating the world, we should model the same combination of truth and grace exhibited by our Lord Jesus Christ.
We could emphasize the need to recognize the Bible’s narrative as the true story of the whole world, refusing to allow the Bible’s story to be replaced by the narratives spun by our preferred media outlets, political parties, or thought leaders. We should beware the religious effects of a liturgy in which we watch, listen to, or read hours and hours of news and opinion shows each day, thus unwittingly opening the door for those narratives to shape us more than the Bible’s.
We could focus on the fact that modern political ideologies tend to be idolatrous, elevating some aspect of God’s creation—material equality, social progress, an ethnic group, cultural heritage, economic efficiency, personal autonomy—to the level of a deity. Once elevated, that aspect of God’s creation becomes a cudgel that beats down other good aspects of his creation.
We could focus on the need to work for the common good of the whole nation, rather than engaging in identity politics. That’s what it means to be a good-willed citizen of a democratic republic.
We could focus on the importance of praying for God to strengthen us for the years and decades ahead because there will be enormous pressure for Christians to capitulate, for us to compromise the truths of historical and biblical Christianity. And that when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he showed them the holes in his hands and side. And that if Jesus—the cosmic King of the universe—could take a crucifixion on our behalf, we should manage to stomach the social (and economic and legal) pressure that will come our way because of Christian conviction.
We could focus on “reframing” the day’s political issues in light of biblical teaching. It stands to reason that if secular political parties frame an issue in one particular way, Christian citizens would frame it differently. We might take a similar line of reasoning but come to a different conclusion. Alternately, we might come to the same or similar conclusions but because of different motivations or for different reasons.
We could focus on the need to balance short-term political activism and the long-term political good. Short-term activism is not inherently wrong. Often, we should participate in it. But if we are not careful, we will sacrifice our long-term witness on the altar of short-term political gain. If we are not careful, we will buy into a secular utilitarian ethic, justifying the means in light of the ends.
We could emphasize Christian’s need to take the “broad view.” Christians should be careful not to put all of our eggs in the narrow basket of politics, instead working to renew and reform the other spheres of culture—art and science, scholarship and education, business and entrepreneurship, sports and competition, marriage and family.
Et, as they say, cetera.
Which brings me to the one thing I’d say to American citizens about their involvement in politics and public life. It’s not that these other things are inherently less important. In fact, all of them are important.
Our Need for Revival
But for today, if you’re asking me, “What is the one thing that God’s people must focus on amidst their concern about the state of American politics and public life?” I’d say this:
In our efforts to bring about cultural and political reform, we must not forget about the need for spiritual revival. That’s right. Revival.
During my earliest years as a Christian, my experience of the evangelical tradition is that we emphasized the need for revival, often to the exclusion of cultural reform. I’m not sure I ever heard a sermon about the need to reform our cultural institutions. And that bothered me. In fact, that’s why I developed such an interest in public theology, in cultural reform. Cultural reform is good and necessary.
But now what I’m worried about is that many of us will emphasize the need for cultural reform to the near exclusion of our need for revival. If we manage to score short-term political victories—and thus short-term reform of legal institutions, educational laws, and business practices—but do not experience revival, our cultural reform will be for naught.
Let’s remember that the gospel is both a pearl and a leaven. It is a leaven, able to reform the whole of culture. When we embrace Christ’s gospel in the depths of our hearts, our allegiance to him should radiate outward into society, culture, and politics.
But it is first and foremost a pearl of great price, a treasure for which we forsake everything we have (Mt 13:45-46). So, let’s not forget that the gospel cannot have a reforming effect on culture until it has been embraced in the depths of society’s hearts.
Let’s not ignore spiritual revival for the sake of cultural reform.