The world today feels as divisive as ever. Abortion, refugee resettlement, immigration, gun control, and freedom of religion are just a few topics that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and even Christian against Christian as many cling to their tribes no matter the cost while others find themselves without a political home. Where does that leave us as Christians? What is our duty to each other and to God? How can we move forward connected, with respect for one another, and united in our mission for Christ? The Banner has teamed up with the Centre for Public Justice to release a series of articles exploring these topics. This is the first of six.
The year 2020 has been one unlike any other. Late last fall, the upcoming 2020 U.S presidential election was dominating conversations and the news cycle. However, in early 2020, everything turned upside down as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world, affecting every community and every sector of society. In the United States, the country was rocked by the killing of George Floyd, leading to months of protesting racial injustice and police brutality. For many Americans seeking to navigate a world turned upside down, the upcoming election turned into an afterthought. Now is not the time for Christians to abdicate their role as citizens in a political community—there is too much at stake.
However, a discussion of faithful Christian engagement assumes that Christians are both interested and equipped to participate in political life. Yet many Christians, especially Christian young adults, report feeling “politically homeless.” What does this mean? In a 2015 Christianity Today article, Katie Thompson described the politically homeless population as one that “can’t position themselves on the political spectrum, at least not consistently. They might support traditionally conservative positions on life or economics and progressive views on immigration policy or marriage. In the current ‘my side vs. yours’ political climate, they can’t find a perfect fit.” To put it simply, in the United States’ two-party system, many Christians feel too conservative for the Democratic party and too progressive for the Republican party.
What does it mean to feel politically homeless?
This article will explore the “so what.” Why does it matter that many Christians, especially young people, identify as politically homeless? I posit that political homelessness is a reason for concern in our current context for at least two reasons.
First, when people don't feel that their political beliefs fit anywhere within the current political system, instead of seeking to engage in their political communities through working to reform a party platform, advocating for a specific issue, or even considering running for office themselves, they simply disengage. Some feel ambivalent, apathetic, and/or anxious about our current political landscape. They feel they lack agency to bring about any real changes to the public policies, public officials and public squares that impact their everyday lives and that of their neighbors. This is understandable, but it is not helpful and, as I will discuss below, does not align with a hopeful vision of Christian civic engagement.
Another connected, yet distinct challenge with political homelessness, and a reason people may feel frustrated, is that they're seeking a home and/or their identity/fulfillment from a political party. While this desire is also understandable, it misplaces our identity as Christians in Christ alone. It is through our identity in Christ that we are then called to engage in the political community as citizens, but we cannot look to political parties, government and other civic institutions for ultimate fulfillment. This poses a challenge for Christians: how do we hold these two tensions in balance? How do we avoid complete political apathy and withdrawal from civic life, on the one hand, while also avoiding the temptation to find our ultimate hope in a political party—and ultimately be disappointed when we don’t find it?
How ought we respond when we feel politically homeless
At the heart of the Christian faith is the notion that in every human person, we see the image of God made flesh. The goal of our civic engagement ought to be to honor and uphold human dignity—the image of God in every person—through just policies and practices.
Political homelessness, especially for Christians, is a natural feeling and a shared experience for many. As a starting point, we must ask what we do with this condition. Ultimately addressing political homelessness is not about finding a perfect fit within a political platform or party, but it is about where we root our identity. We must ask how we take our identity in Christ and apply it to the vocation of citizenship.
In an article Citizenship is Our Common Calling, the Center for Public Justice’s CEO Stephanie Summers lays out a vision and antidote for political homelessness. She writes,
Our citizenship responsibilities are a direct response to the command to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God as articulated in Micah 6:8 and throughout Scripture. Yet God’s good invitation to citizenship in political community has become an invitation many dread receiving.
Summers lays out a framework that calls us not just to live out the gospel’s redemptive vision through how we serve in our communities, but through how we love our neighbor by taking up our civic responsibilities, such as voting, shaping just public policies, etc. As Summers points out, and as discussed previously in this article, it is often easier to tangibly see how we can bear the image of Christ and love our neighbors as ourselves through acts of direct service, like ministering to local school children through a tutoring program. But it is often more challenging to shift our mindset and actions from tangible acts of community service to thinking about how we love our neighbors, even the ones we will never meet, in our political community through fulfilling our citizenship responsibilities.
Consider the example Summers poses of an individual tutoring in a local school as a ministry activity. The community service act of tutoring can serve as a catalyst for engagement in the political community. As Summers notes, the tutor may begin to shift her mindset from that of service to that of citizen by “investing time in understanding and discussing what structural factors are at play.” Let us take up the example of voting. Voting is certainly not the only civic action. In fact, in many ways, it is a baseline for the most fundamental act of engagement in a political community. But in this example, our tutor/citizen may begin to realize that the local school board has a lot of power over the policies that directly impact the students she is serving.
The tutor/citizen may begin to study the policy positions of each individual running for school board, thinking about how their positions would either help or hinder the students she was serving. Perhaps before engaging as a tutor, this individual, who is a retired local homeowner and has no children herself, asked the following questions about voting: “How does my ballot directly impact me? I don’t have children, so I am not directly impacted by the school board race, so perhaps I won’t vote for those positions. I don’t want to pay more property taxes, so I will vote ‘no’ for the local school millage that will raise my taxes.”
But after serving as a tutor, this individual has developed a different decisional framework for voting specifically, and civic engagement more generally. Now our tutor/citizen, in addition to still considering how casting a vote for certain public officials would directly impact herself, is considering the following questions: 1) Does this candidate exhibit a baseline integrity and competency necessary to carrying out the essential functions of elected office? 2) How do the policy positions of this candidate impact all the members of my political community, especially the most under-resourced? Does this candidate’s policy proposals advance the ability of “the least among us” to have equal opportunities to live into their full potential? 3) Does this candidate, in his/her stated policy positions, take into account the important role of other, non-governmental groups in advancing community well-being? Does this candidate provide a vision that includes not just individual responsibility and/or government responsibility, but that specifically calls out the importance of diverse community-based and faith-based groups?
In the tutoring example, our tutor/citizen may decide who to vote for in a local election for school board by considering the framework outlined above. The tutor/citizen may recognize that a school board member needs to be carrying out his/her role with the public interest in mind, he/she needs to be considering how the policies he supports will empower the most disadvantaged students, and he/she should recognize the important role of civil society groups beyond just the school itself and parents in holistically building the potential of all students. It is important to note that even within this framework, there is wide latitude for discretion in terms of how and who to vote for. Christians of good faith can disagree about which candidate in any particular election best lives into the categories outlined above (and they may even disagree with the categories themselves). The important takeaway here is that this tutoring example demonstrates that service and citizenship, though mutually reinforcing, are distinct roles and responsibilities we have as Christians.
This is but one example of how people are engaging across differences for the betterment of the whole. This is the embodiment of a public justice ethic, which embodies the notion that individual citizens, government and civil society organizations must all fulfill their God-given roles and responsibilities, working together, to bring about healthy communities. This series will explore a variety of different approaches to faithful civic engagement despite feelings of political homelessness. It seeks to offer Christians with a hopeful vision for engaging important issues of justice in an election year and beyond.