By Scott McConnell
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways” (Isaiah 55:8, CSB).
In no part of life is this truth more evident than in politics. At different points in my life, my natural responses to political engagement have actually been counter to God’s ways.
Recently Lifeway Research completed a research study among Americans with evangelical beliefs in partnership with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Fetzer Institute.
The study showed that a little over one-third of evangelicals have found that some of their political views have been inconsistent with the Bible. Let me be transparent about some of my inconsistencies in case you can relate.
I wanted to win
Politics is about position and methods. I naturally want to be the one in charge of my life and I want things to happen my way.
Democracy helps facilitate these two big wants—if our candidate wins. We literally are choosing our own master. We want to personally win by seeing our chosen candidate win.
In this regard I’m not alone. Evangelicals look much like the rest of Americans. The topics most influential to evangelical voters are things that relate to making our own lives better.
The votes of the largest number of evangelicals are motivated by healthcare (51%), the economy (49%), and national security (46%).
In contrast, less than half as many are others-focused, being influenced by providing for the needy (22%).
As Christians, should our quest be any different? Should I be seeking a different win? Does winning even matter?
Position matters in politics. Position also matters in the kingdom of God. As usual, God is looking at our hearts on this topic as much as our position.
Jesus gave instructions on seeking position, “Go and recline in the lowest place…. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:10-11, CSB).
In Mark 10 Jesus says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” First and last are definitely positions. The conversation with His disciples had begun with Jesus saying how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
We think of the rich as having a higher socioeconomic position. The disciples even thought this position meant they also were first in line for salvation. Jesus reminded them salvation is impossible for anyone without God.
He went on to affirm that leaving houses, family, and fields for the sake of the gospel would be rewarded.
God’s way is about desiring kingdom progress rather than political progress. My focus on winning a seat or winning control for my party is foreign to God’s view of position, power, and prestige.
Politics is not the battle that matters.
I didn’t want to lose
I remember the emotions following the defeat of a presidential candidate I once supported like it was yesterday. It felt like my whole world was turned upside down.
I didn’t want to talk to people who supported the winning candidate. I thought wrong had defeated right. I wasn’t sure there was any hope for my future much less for my children.
While it may not have been the same election, you likely have had those same emotions after an election. Whether we admit it or not, we’ve come to believe that our future is tied to our political position.
We fear the consequences of not having that position or not re-taking that position. Almost 6 in 10 evangelicals agree with the statement, “If those I disagree with politically are able to implement their agenda, our democracy will be in danger.”
As we think the worst of our political opponents, this fear can cause us to become desperate not to lose. As debates continue, we often overreact.
The reality is that even when our political side is in a position of authority, we aren’t in control. Even when our side wins, we didn’t put them in power (Daniel 2:21).
God asks us to fear Him, not any other power. From God’s perspective, losing may not always be what it appears. As God chose to reveal Himself to us, He chose to share His message with many writers and his disciples who were in defeated kingdoms.
When we believe the church has lost politically, the kingdom of God often thrives.
Through the years I’ve known missionaries who had served in China before the spread of Communism forced missionaries to leave. I have also talked to missionaries who served in Venezuela where Hugo Chávez deported all missionaries serving among indigenous peoples.
In both cases the church clearly lost politically. Yet in both cases the gospel spread faster and the kingdom of God advanced during those times of political defeat.
I made an investment trade-off
For me, the win-lose mentality around politics has led me down many paths I’ve found empty.
You see, I’ve always been fascinated by politics. I would even say I’ve loved politics. So, I invested time and effort in politics. And that involvement meant I wasn’t investing in other things.
As a party committeeman, I knocked on doors to get out the vote long before I ever knocked on a door to try to tell someone about Jesus.
I wrote my congressman encouraging the spread of democracy in Central America before I ever went to the region on a mission trip.
With my name on the official ballot, I was elected to serve my political party before I was elected to serve as a deacon.
As Paul said, “… I once also had confidence in the flesh.”
I frequently think of Joshua’s encounter with the Angel of the Lord in which Joshua asked him whose side he was on. The surprising answer was “Neither.”
God doesn’t need our armies or our political parties.
My political engagement wasn’t wrong, and I may do some of these again. But my involvement was often at the expense of kingdom activity rather than an extension of it. I had invested in a side that has nothing to do with God’s side.
The emptiness I eventually felt politically reveals the idol it became.
I became cynical of political involvement
My over-involvement in politics with no apparent impact left me cynical and bitter. One day in a conversation with a coworker I expressed my lack of hope in an upcoming election. Politics had burned me, and I really didn’t see the point of participating.
He and his wife lovingly admonished my outlook. They sent me some words from Chuck Colson that still ring true: “Just because the democratic system doesn’t always give you good rulers doesn’t mean we do not keep trying.”
I’m not alone in my reluctance to get involved. Less than half of evangelicals even watched a debate in the last three years. More than half of evangelicals don’t reveal their political beliefs if they’re in an environment where their beliefs are unpopular.
Withdrawal isn’t a biblical position, either. Colson also quoted St. Augustine in saying Christians are meant to be “the best of citizens.”
Moving toward God’s ways
Our natural inclinations are to be poor winners and sore losers. We participate in the selection process but abstain from the service of the masters chosen by the people.
We long to devour the spoils of victory. We’re quick to say an elected leader is “not my leader.” We demand that those who represent our beliefs not give opponents an inch.
God’s ways are completely different and remarkably more civil: Turning the other cheek. Leaving revenge to God. Finding our identity in Christ. Repaying evil with good. Praying for our enemies. Seeking peace. Loving our neighbors.
These are all hard lessons I’m still learning.
SCOTT MCCONNELL (@smcconn) is the executive director of Lifeway Research.