That great thinker Marx (Groucho, not Karl) once observed that: ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.’ Despite this comical analysis, politics matters because the decisions made and directions taken (aka policies) affect the lives of so many people. Perhaps most importantly, policies reflect morality – either of the ‘now, but not yet’ coming Kingdom of Jesus – or the shifting morality of mankind, which as human nature and history likes to remind us, tends to end in tears. Which when added to the need for each generation to contend for the freedoms for the gospel, makes Christian engagement in politics a vital, missional affair.
But it’s important to differentiate politics from government. Politics is the means by which we achieve government. While God might not be interested in the petty squabbling that constitutes politics today, he is certainly interested in government – the right ordering of our relation priorities – with Him and with each other. Every page of the Bible illustrates this. From Genesis defining human equality and dignity, to the Levitical laws framing authority and mutual responsibilities, to Deuteronomy founding our ideas of human rights. From the teachings of Christ and the apostles, in the West our political culture is saturated with Christianity.
Which is why politics is a spiritual battlefield, and not a place for the faint-hearted. As the West has secularised, although people have become notably more cynical and apathetic, politics has become notably more authoritarian. As biblical influence diminishes, politics is becoming less forgiving or redemptive. Shorn of the moral vision and restraint provided by Christianity, our legislating is driven by utility and consensus, to facilitate evermore individual choice, often at the expense of the common good – and the poor. This is because, in the zero-sum game of identity politics in which self-designated victim groups vie for power, those without voice or means are simply ignored or even despised. Exacerbating this de-humanising injustice, it is clear that the more freedoms we desire, the more laws we require – and so liberation (from accountability to anyone or anything) is increasingly enforced and imposed. In his book ‘Live Not by Lies’, Rod Dreher identifies this as ‘soft totalitarianism’ – a therapeutic form of liberal fascism which is disfiguring democracy, and which brooks no dissent, especially from those obstinate and conscientious Christians. As the poet WB Yeats put it: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’
Be under no illusions. Though politics is often glamorised, in daily reality it is arduous, and even quite boring. Activism can be a thankless task, not least because politics promises far more than it can ever deliver. While the path into politics is easier for secularised faux-Christians, for bible-believing Christians it can be a distinctly hostile venture. Whether in local or national politics, in an established party or as an independent, whether as a campaigner or an elected representative or even as a civil servant, the cultural context for Christian engagement is febrile. As secularism descends into sexualism, and as progressivism becomes transgressivism, any voices which speak for morality, truth, human dignity, religious liberty, marriage, and the protection of children will be vociferously opposed. Consequently, a sober analysis is indispensable. Christian public leadership must regain a perspective on sacrifice and a theology of suffering. We cannot ignore the words of Jesus that opposition is inevitable (John 15:18-25) and that we need to ‘count the cost’ (Luke 14:25-34).
Intellect, great oratory and natural charm are all helpful in politics, but they will only take you so far. I’ve seen many good people with good intentions entering politics and being elevated to important positions, only to lose their way by forgetting their faith, or to fold under the intense heat of real politic. This is usually attributable to fear of man supplanting fear of God – and two subsets of fear: comfort and status. Exceptions are few. But they do exist, even across political boundaries. For example: the Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms – who has served the poor with distinction through numerous party iterations; or Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates – MPs who are contending to marriage and family policies in the Conservative Party; or Tim Farron MP – who, despite being persecuted for his faith, seeks to affirm the vital role of faith in politics. Or my personal inspiration, Lord (David) Alton – a Christian parliamentarian who has tirelessly campaigned for unborn children and religious freedom for over 45 years – in a political context of necessary compromise, yet without any compromise to his Christian faith. These, and many others not only contend for the freedoms for the gospel, in word and deed they also proclaim Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Undoubtably, Christian servant-leadership can still make a huge difference. Despite – and undoubtably because of the great challenges of our secular age – being involved in politics is a noble endeavour. Being a sign of Christ and His coming Kingdom. Being salt – which brings flavour and preserves what is good. Being light – which shows truth and gives vision. Being a voice for the voiceless – speaking truth to power. Being a warrior and a peacemaker – a lion and a lamb. Bringing the wisdom of God to human affairs in ways that protect the vulnerable, preserve the good, and restrain the heartless – doing what Os Guinness describes as ‘the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way’ – for His glory and our healing.
We have numerous biblical examples to inspire Christian engagement in politics, such as Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Nehemiah. Perhaps the most instructive scripture is Jesus’s ‘zoology discourse’ in which he cites four animals, saying “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16) This is a stark acknowledgment of our calling to carry the gospel into perilous places, and the ‘therefore’ is there for a reason. Rather than having soft minds and hard hearts, we need to cultivate tender hearts and tough minds. In our ‘cultural climate change’, we need to toughen up, without hardening up. Then we can count the cost, and prayerfully engage our faith in the battlefield of politics.