To “politicize” something, Merriam Webster says, is “to give a political tone or character to” it. My sixth-grade teacher would, with a sigh, object, and then repeat a rule she drilled into us all year. “Don’t ever use the word being defined in the definition of that word.” But she is not here, and who am I to argue with Merriam?
More to the point, we probably don’t need a formal dictionary definition to know when something is politicized.
Let’s say I’m driving through town on some errand and see some people sitting on the grass in front of a house holding pictures of hens. I’d assume a group of backyard chicken enthusiasts have got together to share coffee and discuss chicken breeds, egg production, avian flu, and what each has named their favorite hen. The only thing remotely political about the group is if they decide to become a formal club, post an announcement of their monthly meetings at the public library, and elect a secretary to keep minutes. But when I notice the same group holding the same pictures sitting on the grass outside City Hall, I’d assume they are protesting some ordinance that limits chickens within the city limits. And if they are carrying eggs, I’ll definitely pull over to watch what transpires when the Mayor and City Council emerge into the bright sunshine from their afternoon meeting. Same group, same pictures, but the meeting’s been politicized. There’s nothing strange or wrong with that, and since my wife raises chickens in our backyard, I’d probably be in favor of the sit-in at City Hall. Most city ordinances outlawing backyard chickens should be repealed, but that’s another topic for another time. And in case you are wondering, Margie’s named her four lovely hens after cheeses: Fontina, Velveeta, Pecorino, and Brie. I’d have a few ethical questions about throwing eggs, but I’d still be eager to watch. Something as simple as sitting on the grass can be politicized.
Another example of how ordinary things can be politicized is mentioned in the Trinity Forum Conversation, “Curbing the Culture Wars: An Online Conversation with Yuval Levin and Brandon Vaidyanathan.” I recommend this conversation to you. Two thoughtful scholars, one Jewish and one Catholic, consider how we can live together in a pluralistic society with civility and neighborliness. They have reflected deeply and long on the topic and offer keen insight and gentle wisdom that I hope and pray are embraced before America and America’s White evangelical church tear themselves apart. Anyway, in the online conversation, one of them commented that politicization can transform even ordinary objects. Compare and contrast a MAGA cap, they said, and a Jewish yarmulka (or kippah). Both caps implicitly carry deep meaning for the wearer, but there is a sharper, politicized difference as well. If you wear a kippah, it says who you are and do; if you wear a MAGA cap, it says not just who you are and do but who you think I should be and do.
But I am not so much interested here about when some thing or group is politicized as I am when we are politicized. When our view of life and culture and reality increasingly, perhaps unconsciously, is shaped by political categories, agendas, and ideologies. It’s one thing to be involved politically to achieve some specific goal, or to fulfill our political stewardship as citizens. It’s quite another to become so captivated with the political enterprise and so captured by political ideologies that we view life through politicized lens.
I should also mention that my concern here is not when my non-Christian neighbors are politicized. I respect them for wanting to be agents of change for the common good. I can see the attractiveness of politics if one doesn’t believe in the power of the gospel to transform lives and cultures. My concern here is, instead, when politicization infiltrates the church.
It’s easy to understand why people become politicized. Maybe they got involved with a political cause, were impressed by how it turned out, and now see politics is the primary way to change the world for the better. Maybe they are so horrified by the proposals of a party or candidate that they assume only political activism can neutralize their malevolent plans. Maybe they are concerned about the cultural and moral decline in society and believe the pundits who insist that only political activism can stop the slide into decadence. Maybe they are influenced by a charismatic friend who insists that only by embracing the Conservative (or Progressive) agenda can they fulfill the promise of America’s Founders. Whatever the reason, slowly, unconsciously, whatever political ideology has shaped their involvement, whether of the Right or the Left, begins to act as their worldview—by which I mean it identifies what things used to be like, what went wrong, what the solution is, and provides hope for a better world ahead. In other words, it answers the same questions that the biblical categories of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation do. All political ideologies include a set of values, ideas, assumptions, perspectives, and rituals that answer the question of what we need to best flourish as individuals in modern society.
This should raise a red flag in the mind of every follower of Jesus. Our discomfort is appropriate, because, as David Koyzis demonstrates in Political Visions and Illusions, all political ideologies, both Left and Right, are from a biblical perspective, idolatries. This does not mean that political ideologies are totally untrue. Each ideology is rooted in some aspect of created reality, and thus shares points of agreement with a biblical worldview. They may begin with the significance of the individual, or of the community, or of private property, each of which is valued in Scripture. This overlap is what initially draws professing Christians to them. And indeed, these points of agreement are significant for fruitful conversation, agreement, and compromise.
This overlap of worldviews also allows us to understand why the Old Testament people of God were drawn to the myths, rituals, and values of the pagan gods of their neighbors. For example, Baal was the Canaanite word for “Lord,” the term used of the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For another, the poetry dedicated to Baal shared familiar metaphors with those of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Lo, also it is the time of His rain.
Baal sets the season,
And gives forth His voice from the clouds.
He flashes lightning to the earth.
As a house of cedars let Him complete it.
And from Psalm 29:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders…
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars…
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The idolatrous Israelites, in other words, did not shut down their engagement with the God of Scripture at the Temple so much as open their hearts and minds to the values and ideas of the Canaanites. Living in Canaan, it was all around them and must have seemed natural, the way to get things done in an agrarian society.
Similarly, it is difficult to resist being politicized today because we live in a politicized—and politicizing—world. It’s in the cultural air we breath so it feels natural, the way to get things done in the world of advanced modernity.
When St. Paul in Romans 12 contrasts being “conformed to this world” with being “transformed by the renewing of your minds,” he is instructing us to choose the more demanding path. Conformity is easy, going with the flow. Developing a Christian mind, on the other hand, where we are increasingly shaped by the truth of God word in terms of our values, convictions, and presuppositions is a life-long pilgrimage involving the discipline required to be disciples. I remember Francis Schaeffer noting that Christians had an added task at each step in addressing society’s ills. It is insufficient, he insisted, to understand the various problems and the latest solutions being proposed. The followers of Jesus also must master what Scripture and the best Christian thinking of the last 2000 years teach about the issues involved.
If this sounds impossibly daunting, don’t let it. Yes, it involves discipline—a term closely related to disciple—but it is not a path we have to walk alone. For one thing, the Holy Spirit is more eager to teach than we are to learn. And in the church, over two thousand years, there have been holy spirited thinkers charting the way of faithfulness. (See “For Further Reflection” at the end of this essay for some practical suggestions and resources.)
The politicized Christian will likely continue with their normal Christian devotions, public worship, sexual morality, and creedal beliefs, just as the Old Testament people of God who absorbed the myths and values of Baal continued to worship at the Temple, celebrate the appropriate feasts, and tithe. But as the prophet Amos observed, God hated their worship (5:21-23). The question before us probes deeply into our hearts and minds. The question is what is practically informing our worldview and shaping our everyday values, fears, hopes, dreams, and actions. We cannot serve two masters, Jesus taught (Matthew 6:24), and in this echoed the warnings of the prophets about divided loyalty.
But this is not a theoretical issue; being politicized is a practical one. So, I want to identify how it is manifested practically. I will mention two specific ways being politicized erodes Christian faith. Neither are necessarily intentionally or consciously adopted, but both are fatally damaging to heart and soul and witness. And both can be seen unfolding in the American White evangelical church today.
The first way being politicized erodes Christian faith is when political categories, proposals, platforms, programs, and pundits begin to take precedence over Scripture as the foundation of our thinking and doing.
This is easy to observe in action—just watch how people—how we—respond when some issue in the news is mentioned. Could be anything—education, election reform, support for Ukraine, mask mandates—but for discussion purposes let’s assume it is immigration of refugees from Muslim nations. Let’s say the issue is mentioned in a small group, or class, or informal gathering of Christian friends. The questions we need to ask are these: Is our first impulse to study Scripture and the rich tradition of biblical political philosophy to develop a distinctly Christian response? Or is it to discuss the issue in today’s political categories and agendas? Which takes precedence? Which is our instinctive first response?
I chose this specific issue, as you might guess, because the Bible doesn’t address it specifically. Muhammed lived six centuries after the Bible was completed, so there are no proof texts we can turn to. However, the Scriptures speak eloquently to the principles, values, and ideas that underlie it. The Bible includes stories of mass migrations and immigration, and the prophets repeatedly address how the people of God are to treat refugees and aliens. There is much in the Bible about responding to those who are fleeing poverty, violence, and oppression. Essential to the Christian doctrine of Scripture is that because Jesus is Lord of all, the historic biblical faith has something creative, substantial, and intelligent to say to every issue in a fallen world. And the rich tradition of Christian thought provides wisdom based on what the Bible teaches on how we should think and live in the modern world. Which Matthew Kaemingk thoughtfully demonstrates on this issue in Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (2018).
It could be that after we have studied Scripture and the rich tradition of church teaching, we will find that certain political or partisan positions resonate with our Christian perspective on the topic. Well and good. Or perhaps we will have to take a stand that is contrary to both political parties. Well and good, again. I am not dismissing the significance of politics, but arguing that because Jesus is Lord, God’s word in the Scriptures and the rich theological tradition of the church provides wisdom that must shape our assumptions, presuppositions, and positions, and in turn shape how we live and think and vote. This doesn’t mean we have to leave a conversation that simply defaults to political categories, but it might mean needing to say, “I don’t know where I stand. I’ll first have to do some serious Bible study, theological reading, prayer, and reflection. I’ll get back to you.” That may be hard, but it reflects faithfulness, a heart for truth, and a proper humility.
The second way being politicized erodes Christian faith is that political expediency begins to replace biblical ethics in how we treat our neighbor. Sadly, this too can be watched unfolding in real time.
A foundational Christian doctrine, rooted in the Creation narrative, states that every person is made in God’s image. To treat them as anything less is not merely to demean the creature but to be dismissive of their Creator. Further, because all human beings are fallen, Christ died for them, adding an infinite preciousness. This reality is echoed in Christ’s ethic of love, even for those who declare themselves our enemies. We are to love and serve them even at the cost of what we hold dear, including our lives. “New Testament Christianity,” Anglican theologian J. I. Packer writes in Concise Theology, “is essentially a response to the revelation of the Creator as a God of love.”
Our love is to express our gratitude for God’s gracious love to us, and to be modeled on it (Eph 4:32-5:2; 1 John 3:16). The hallmark of Christian life is thus Christian love. The measure and test of love to God is wholehearted and unqualified obedience (1 John 5:3; John 14: 15, 21, 23); the measure and test of love to our neighbor is laying down our lives for them (1 John 3:16; cf. John 15: 12-13). This sacrificial love involves giving, spending, and impoverishing ourselves up to the limit for their well-being… Neighbor-love is profiled in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Its total lack of self-concern is breathtaking. Neighbor-love seeks the neighbor’s good, and the true measure of it is how much it gives to that end. [pp. 181-182]
Even a cursory review of these biblical texts and doctrines reveals that some actions, common in political circles today, are antithetical to Christian faith. How is it possible to justify making or “Liking” statements that demean, dismiss, and demonize those made in God’s image, just because we disagree with them?
It should be unnecessary to list specific actions that demean, dismiss, and demonize, but so many have become so acceptable I will do so. Name calling and labelling, or “Liking” such, using social media to encourage fear, resentment, and scorn. Encouraging hate of political opponents, and with those with whom we disagree. Calls, implicit or explicit, for violence, or the silence that helps enable it. Repeating or “Liking” lies, including ones about stolen elections or voter fraud without clear, objective evidence. Inflaming culture warring, or approving, tacitly or explicitly, any form of Christian Nationalism, a divisive and illegitimate heresy. Refusing to listen. Reducing opponents’ positions to straw arguments instead of dealing with the strongest, best argued, thoughtful version of their position. Any suggestion that those with whom we disagree are mere puppets of malicious powers or individuals instead of persons with true agency. Making statements that make some feel sneered at and dismissed rather than taken seriously, including failing to take inequality and systemic racism seriously.
Are any of these practices in keeping with treating human beings as precious? Do not all violate treating my neighbor with the dignity required as an image-bearer of God and in obedience to the demands of Christ-like love? Some within the church even use them against fellow believers with whom they disagree, with whom they are to share unity in Christ.
When such practices are embraced by politicized Christians, usually some reason is given for deviating from the biblical standard of love. One I’ve heard is that the New Testament was written during the dominance of the Roman Empire, while we live in a self-governing democracy. We are responsible for safeguarding our freedom. In this historical situation love of neighbor means decisively confronting and defeating all those who seek to undermine American democracy with every tool available to us. Nobody likes being confronted with the truth and these rhetorical practices are designed to get their attention.
My response to this is simple. This is simply a rationalization, not a valid reason to ignore the command of God’s word. It’s a rationalization for disobedience because there is no exception to love given us in Scripture. Loving our neighbor is not based on the form of governance we happen to live under; loving our neighbor is based on the character of God.
A more academically sophisticated version of this rationalization can be found in “How I Evolved On Tim Keller” by James Wood published in the journal First Things (5/6/22). Wood argues that Tim Keller’s approach of missional winsomeness and a Third Way understanding of politics worked well for a time, but that time has passed. “Keller’s apologetic model for politics,” Wood says, “was perfectly suited for the ‘neutral world.’ But the ‘negative world’ is a different place. Tough choices are increasingly before us, offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues.” American society was neutral about Christianity but is increasingly hostile to Christian faith, and this necessitates a change in our approach. “The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the gospel,” Wood argues, “can obscure what our political moment requires.”
I have three responses to Wood’s argument. One, although I agree American society has shifted, the terms “neutral” to “negative” are so oversimplified as to be badly misleading. For one thing, the period identified as “neutral”—1994-2014—was the heyday of the New Atheists. Hardly neutral. And although hostility to Christian faith has grown, Keller ministered in Manhattan during the “neutral” period, which was a time, he says, of serious, overt negative resistance to the gospel of grace.
Two, being missional and winsome are not optional. Being missional means finding creative ways to translate the gospel into terms our non-Christian neighbors can comprehend, even if they do not believe. And being winsome means loving and serving them, demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit, even at personal cost. Neither can be jettisoned because we are called to live in a negative world. Or in a political system that requires self-governance.
And third, there is a significant difference between not causing offense and being offensive. Christians sadly have a reputation for being judgmental and negative, eager to proclaim but not listen, and simply being one more tribe that wishes to impose its values and ideas on America. At the root of this impression is the ongoing culture wars. Certainly, the gospel contains its own offense. Some non-Christians will be offended by the claims of Christ as Lord of all. But that is starkly different from non-Christians being offended because the Christians proclaiming Christ are unlike Christ, demonizing enemies, name calling, being dismissive, and failing to love.
Conservative evangelical commentator David French has written a thoughtful response to Wood’s article on The Dispatch. “A Critique of Tim Keller Reveals the Moral Devolution of the New Christian Right” is worth reading and discussing.
We live in an age of negative polarization, when the cardinal characteristic of partisanship is personal animosity. In these circumstances, a Christian community characterized by the fruit of the spirit should be a burst of cultural light, a counterculture that utterly contradicts the fury of the times. Instead, Christian voices ask that we yield to that fury, and that a “negative world” is now no place for the “winsome, missional, and gospel-centered approach.”
But this isn’t an evolution from Tim Keller, it’s a devolution, and it’s one that’s enabling an enormous amount of Christian cruelty and Christian malice. Wood says “Keller was the right man for a moment,” but he also says, “it appears that moment has passed.” That’s fundamentally wrong. When fear and hatred dominates discourse, a commitment to justice and kindness and humility is precisely what the moment requires.
Although I align myself with Keller’s Third Way understanding of political stewardship rather than with French’s Conservatism, I share with them an identical understanding of the necessity of virtue, civility, and the nonnegotiable command to love our neighbor.
Why so many followers of Christ have been so easily politicized has multiple answers that are beyond the scope of this essay. We could point to the impact of social media, the ease and ubiquitous way political discourse floods our consciousness, the popularity of political categories in discussing issues, and probably much more. One reason that needs consideration is the lack of spiritual formation among Christians. Spiritual formation is what is required to make disciples, when what we believe to be true becomes something we love with all our hearts. I may stand and confess in church that I believe human beings are made in God’s image, but does that so fill my heart with adoration that I live it out even when inconvenient? The sad truth is that our political formation is probably more effective in today’s society than our spiritual formation is in our churches.
Back in 1998, philosopher Dallas Willard observed in The Divine Conspiracy that “in Christian churches—of whatever leaning—little effort is made to teach people to do what [Jesus] did and taught.” And he poses a question. “Who among us had personal knowledge of a seminar or course of study and practice being offered in a ‘Christian Education Program’ on how to ‘love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spit on you and make your life miserable?’”
Politics is not ultimate, because Jesus is Lord. And because Jesus is Lord, we need to resist being politicized. Scripture must shape our thinking, assumptions, and political views, and love must mark our character if we are a follower of Jesus. This means that the person living next door is never our enemy but always our neighbor for whom Christ died. They may worship a false god, live selfishly, promote lies, but none of this alters who they are, or that we are to serve them in love, even at personal cost. And yes, our personal cost may involve the undermining of our political freedoms. Which would be tragic but not apocalyptic, and would not change our calling, which is to be faithful in the ordinary and routine of our lives.
“We must dare to love,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “in a world that does not know how to love.” [p. 102]
O God and Father, the Creator of all, whose Son commanded us to love our neighbors, our enemies, and our sisters and brothers: Lead them and us away from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, unkindness, scorn, incivility, and dismissiveness. Grant us your grace to be agents of reconciliation in this divided, fearful, and angry world, and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you in Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
For Further Reflection:
For those wanting information on the rich tradition of church teaching.
There are two rich and long traditions of Christian thought in political philosophy and social justice—the Catholic and the Reformed—that we can and should tap into for the sake of living thoughtful lives of biblical political stewardship. Though they usually agree on conclusions, they often arrive there via different intellectual routes. If this is unfamiliar to you, you might begin by reading Koyzis’s Political Visions and Illusions—he helpfully introduces both traditions in a chapter near the end of the book.
And I would recommend taking advantage of the thoughtful biblical thinking demonstrated by the Center for Public Justice and Association for Public Justice. There you will find numerous resources on politics, political philosophy, research on a wide range of political and cultural issues, and practical studies on how to be faithful as citizens in the pluralistic world of advanced modernity.
And for books tackling specific issues like Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration, contact Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books. It’s his specialty, a wonderful spiritual gift he freely shares with all who ask.
Resources worth discussion & discernment:
“Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” by Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.
“America has a Scorn Problem” by Tish Harrison Warren in The New York Times.
“There Is No Right Person to Hate” by David French in The French Press / The Dispatch.
“JD Vance Surrenders to the Politics of Hate” by Stephanie Slade in Reason.
“J.D. Vance and the Great Challenge of Christian Malice” by David French in The French Press / The Dispatch.
“Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism” by Esau McCaulley in The New York Times.
“This July Fourth, Meet Three Americas: The red, the blue, and the tired” by David French in The French Press / The Dispatch.
“How America Fractured into Four Parts” by George Packer in The Atlantic.
“The God Gap Helps Explain a ‘Seismic Shift’ in American Politics” by David French in The French Press / The Dispatch.
“How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church” by Tim Alberta in The Atlantic.
“Is Evangelicalism Due for a Hundred-Year Schism?” by Bonnie Kristian in Christianity Today.
“The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism” by Michael Graham with Skyler Flowers on Mere Orthodoxy.
“The Subtle Ways Even Peaceful Partisans Enable Political Violence” by David French in The French Press / The Dispatch.
“A Whiff of Civil War in the Air” by David French in The French Press / The Dispatch.
“A Book Review on the Topic of Christian Nationalism” by Dr. Timothy Keller on Gospel in Life.
“Good Faith” podcast, hosted by David French and Curtis Chang in conversation with guests David Brooks and Peter Wehner. “Joining David and Curtis this week are two of the most influential voices speaking to Christian faith in the public square, David Brooks and Peter Wehner. Both Peter and David recently wrote landmark pieces analyzing the current landscape of American evangelicalism. In this podcast, they discuss the signs of hope and restoration for the troubled movement. Also, in a bit of self-revelation, they share about the books that most influenced their own faith journeys.”
Photo credit: Photo by NEOSiAM 2021. (https://www.pexels.com/photo/left-fist-635356/)