Christians can’t be partisan, but we no longer can be apolitical. So what can we be?

By Dave Schmelzer

A prefatory note: We have many delightful tasks in the Blue Ocean Faith world! We spend a lot of time putting our heads together about how better to experience the living Jesus and everything he has to offer us. I’ve been in recent conversations, say, about what we’re learning about how kids can grow and thrive in a vibrant, communicative relationship with Jesus for a lifetime. Right at this moment, my wife—joined by other Blue Ocean pastors and leaders—is in India learning from the amazing ministry Asha how they’ve managed to care for more than half a million of the most at-risk residents of Delhi. Many of our churches will spend this Lent talking about experiencing the Holy Spirit—what have we learned about that over the years; what’s gone great; what’s worked less well; what new things are we learning? These conversations are so much fun and I’m learning so much and getting to know Jesus more each day. Right now a new area of growth is how to respond to the larger world around us. The current political situation can feel so unprecedented and overwhelming that our brains seem to whir on that quite a bit. For some of you, this won’t seem new. You’ve lived in a world where your political candidates have won and also where they’ve lost so, as you see it, what’s different here—except perhaps for sour grapes if one’s candidate lost? If that’s your perspective, God bless you! I’m entirely with you in your hopes of knowing and loving Jesus and your neighbor and I’m praying for an awesome life for you. But for most of my Blue Ocean friends, this doesn’t seem like business as usual, but like a very different landscape. So, while doing our best not to neglect the many-faceted world of faith, it’s true that some percentage of our podcasts and blog posts will continue to ponder this particular question, as does this post. (Which, I should mention, is not in any way a “Blue Ocean” position, which doesn’t exist. It’s just how I’m pondering things.) If that’s helpful to you, keep reading!

I read today that Stephen Colbert has overtaken Jimmy Fallon in the ratings, which seemed unfathomable a year ago, when it was widely regarded that Colbert had had a bumpy transition from his niche Comedy Central show to his mainstream CBS show. Fallon was the golden boy, with his goofy charm, clever bits and inoffensive approach. Perhaps the new presidency has flipped that calculus? Is Fallon increasingly out of touch with what viewers are feeling while the more breezily political Colbert is coming into his own?

Churches are facing a similar challenge. Since the 1980 election, evangelical churches have been reliably Republican while mainline churches have been reliably Democrat. But it became widely known that young evangelicals were fleeing their churches because following Jesus came to be equated to being a neoconservative.[1]

Meanwhile, many churches, like mine, embraced an apolitical perspective—encouraging community engagement, diversity and voting one’s conscience while being wary of identifying one’s political perspective with God’s point of view. Far from being inoffensive, in an evangelical church this was a way of carving out space from evangelicalism’s monolithic Republicanism and I’m still very attracted to this perspective.[2] After my conversion from atheism, one of the earliest lessons I was taught in my campus Christian group was that Jesus was not Republican or Democrat or American—that our allegiance, as per Hebrews 11, was to another kingdom, that we were “strangers and sojourners” here on earth, that pledging allegiance to either party was idolatry. I still buy that. Totally down with that to this day.

That said, as Colbert and Fallon are discovering, we seem to have entered into a political reality that’s demanding a new approach. Since my conversion, America has had conservative, ideological presidents (Reagan and Bush 2), an establishment Republican president (Bush 1) and two Democrats who infuriated the right (Clinton and Obama). But none of that, in my circles, was enough to shake the wisdom of the apolitical approach, whose churches chugged along unperturbed from administration to administration.

But no more.

Most churches I’m friends with—compelled by the vast Scriptural appeals to welcome the stranger and defend the weak and love their neighbor[3]—have done at least some organizing against Mr. Trump’s attempted immigration ban or his executive order against Obamacare or his often-overtly-racist-or-hostile-to-the-agency-they’re-being-nominated-to-lead cabinet choices. Does this mean that these churches, in obedience to Jesus, must now become Democrat? Is being apolitical no longer tenable?

Yes, I do think being apolitical is no longer tenable.

But I still resist churches identifying with parties or ideologies, choices that continue to strike me as diminishing the gospel and—as evangelical churches discovered with their young people—as shortsighted.

Instead, I wonder if centered-set, which has been so central to how Blue Ocean Faith has defined itself spiritually, has things to offer us politically during times like ours. More on this in a moment.

In search of a way forward for churches like mine, I’ve launched into a reading blitz about how we came to this morass. So I’ve been reading Heather Hendershot’s new Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line (about the birth of neoconservatism) and Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (about the origins of American conservatism and liberalism) and Colin Woodard’s American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good (you’ve figured out what it’s about), along with the fascinating documentary Best of Enemies (on Netflix as I write this) about the cataclysmic debate between Buckley and his diametrically-opposite-mirror-image, Gore Vidal, at the 1968 Democratic convention.[4]

And I’m learning lots of interesting things. Sam Tanenhaus, in The Death of Conservatism: A Movement and Its Consequences, talks about the two wings of conservatism, the establishment (again: Bush 1, along with Eisenhower and Nixon) and the “revanchist,” which tries to recapture a lost, bygone era and regards itself as “right”—and so must attack other Republicans (and of course Democrats) as both wrong and dangerous (again: Reagan, Bush 2 and Republican congresspeople since the mid-90s). He argues that the Democrats don’t have similar wings, that this is a Republican thing.[5]

And he argues, with Woodard, that in the end there are only two great political issues that must always live in concert with one another: social responsibility and individual liberty. Today’s Democrats tend towards the former while today’s Republicans increasingly only embrace the latter.[6] But, say Tanenhaus and Woodard, any responsible political system will embrace the tension that comes with both. The revanchist impulse to wage war on “liberalism” triggers a backlash. If revanchist Republicans rejected everything Obama or the Democrats wanted to do, to keep equilibrium Democrats are now incentivized to reject anything Trump or the Republican congress want to do.

Does centered-set have anything to offer us in this zero-sum, destructive death match?

It seems to me it does, but that it starts at a quiet, perhaps inoffensive space, which is agreeing on the center of our set. For our purposes here, I’ll propose what most of these thinkers propose—that our set’s center is maintaining both social responsibility and individual liberty. That, when one of these is threatened, addressing that becomes a top priority.[7] A suggestive Bible story along these lines is John 5:1-14, Jesus healing the man at the pool of Bethesda. The man can’t heal himself; for that he needs help. But Jesus famously asks him up front, “Do you want to be healed?” Can the man take on the life of being able-bodied? After the healing, Jesus says the next steps are on him: “Pick up your mat and walk.”

And a particularly helpful political passage for me has been Jeremiah 29:4-9. It’s talking to the Israelite exiles into Babylon. They understandably regard themselves as God’s true people (perhaps a parallel to our red states?) and the Babylonians as evil enemies of God (perhaps how red states regard blue states?). Here’s God’s command to the Israelites via Jeremiah:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. (NIV)

Here’s my paraphrase. “Whatever may be the case about your spiritual superiority to the Babylonians, the fact is that you have common interest with them. If Babylon thrives, so do you. So do whatever it takes for everyone—not just the good guys in your camp—to thrive. And pray for the Babylonians the same way you pray for each other. And if ideological purists come along who encourage you to declare war on the godless bad guys, don’t listen to them! They’re not speaking for me!” Here at least, God is centered-set in the way we’re talking about here.

So, to summarize, here’s what strikes me as useful about this centered-set political perspective.

  1. It makes our political allegiances situational.

When a party or candidate runs, as we’ve seen recently, on a platform of marginalizing groups of people, our mandate is clear; we protest and resist and make our voices heard. On this theory, this isn’t “liberal” or “Democrat,” it’s centered-set; it’s keeping our eye on the heart of our mutual mission; it’s loving our neighbor. On the other hand, if, Soviet-style, the state becomes more and more tyrannical and powerful, the opposite choice is equally clear.[8]

2. It makes our politics pragmatic rather than ideological.

Ideologues, as in Jeremiah 29, are the enemies both of thriving faith in Jesus and, it seems to me, of a thriving world. Ideologues are the Lenins and Robespierres and Limbaughs and Breitbarts of the world. From either the left or the right, they can offer a powerful critique, but only a totalitarian rule. Savonarola could argue for a “pure religion,” but getting it required him burning a lot of people at the stake, which alloyed his spiritual helpfulness. Revanchism, as Tanenhaus talks about, doesn’t help us rally around a just and thriving society—instead it goes heavy bounded-set. It loudly argues for who are the saved and who are the damned and—against God’s commands in Jeremiah 29—encourages all-out war. By definition ideologues require leaving behind one of the twin pillars of the center of our set—again, social responsibility and individual liberty—while villainizing all who continue to believe in the left-behind value.

3. In its pragmatism, it heavily values evidence.

If we agree on the center of our set, it becomes in all of our interests to figure out if we’re making progress towards the center or not. With ideologues, evidence is actually unhelpful—what gets measured instead is ideological passion. Robespierre didn’t care if his policies were making for a more just and thriving France; he wanted to know if you were a hundred percent on board with his extremism.

So is what I’m calling a centered-set approach the same as being a centrist, as being an establishment Democrat or Republican? The question makes sense. Centrists do, in theory, keep an eye on the two central pillars of our proposed center; it’s radicals on either side that argue for one and demonize the other.

But I don’t think so. This might, for instance, call for extreme protest and resistance at times—perhaps times like these. Protest and resistance are not the bread and butter of a centrist.

There are other ways to look at this perspective than by the lens of centered-set. For instance, decades back, I was taught the decision-making tool of “O.A.R.”, which stands for “Objectives. Actions. Risks.” The insight here was that, when any of us thinks of new things to try, we wrongly start with actions. “Maybe my business would do better if I ponied up for TV advertising.” But this skips the key step of first identifying our objectives. Why do we want our business to grow? Are there some sorts of growth we’d like, but other types that would cause us problems? And it also undersells considering risks. What is our downside risk if the advertising doesn’t work? Or is there risk even if it does?

O.A.R. might look at this political perspective this way. Unless we’re extremists, “liberalism” and “conservatism” are both actions, not objectives. For the non-extremist, our objective is “to marry social responsibility and individual liberty.” Or it’s at the very least “to have a thriving country in which both we and our children and grandchildren will benefit.” At a given moment, our best action to accomplish that objective might be a conservative one, while at other points it would be a liberal one. It depends. The only way a political allegiance can be our objective is if we live at the fringes and make our objective something like “to create the perfect Soviet collective” or “to keep government off our backs as we live off the land.”

I’m by no means pitching that centered-set politics is a political winner. Clearly a lot of history argues that playing to ideological passions and demonizing outsiders can go a long way. But I am pitching that this is a way of being faithful to Jesus in the political realm that works for me.

It keeps alive the ideal taught to me in my early Christian days; it keeps Jesus from being a Republican or a Democrat. It doesn’t alloy our love of and loyalty to Jesus by making that love—as young evangelicals discovered—a political cover. It allows that Jesus, being alive, can speak to us in our political moment—that we’re not removed from needing his living guidance because we’ve decided that our political ideology will do the guiding for us. It helps us keep our eye on our responsibility to love our neighbor even as it allows our love for God to thrive on its own terms.

I still grieve my apoliticality! It seemed so bold and needed at one point. But perhaps it was always meant to be a way station to the richer world of centered-set. And these days Colbert does seem more on point than does the always-charming Fallon.

[1] Perhaps this is also—in reverse—a key reason that mainline churches continue to shrink in numbers.

[2] I continue to be a registered independent, as I’ve been for decades.

[3] It’s pervasive. So in terms of immigrants we might go to, like, Deuteronomy 10: 19: “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or we can go New Testament with Hebrews 13: 1: ”Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Or we can go Jesus with Matthew 25: 35: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In terms of marginalized groups, there’s the obvious use of  Mark 12:28-31: “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’”

Pervasive.

[4] The Guardian, summarizing the climactic heart of the documentary, describes it this way: As part of ABC’s coverage of the police “blue riot” that ensued in Chicago – batons cracking student skulls – Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” for justifying the brutality, to which Buckley snaps: “Listen to me you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” On live TV. That led to decades of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits between the two. The documentarians present it as the only example of Buckley losing his cool to that degree, as something he was ashamed of until his death (despite his never-flagging loathing of Vidal) and as a picture of how the neoconservative instinct was in response to a sense of threat to a bygone era.

[5] Buckley was perhaps the most important revanchist, the one who made the other ones possible. He used ridicule married to erudition to go after centrists like Eisenhower.

[6] Woodard among others points out that the meanings of “Republican” and “Democrat” have entirely flipped since  1930.

[7] I’m particularly grooving on Woodard these days. He compellingly argues that if we don’t keep these two in balance, tyranny happens—either from the state or from the oligarchs. He points to the French and Russian Revolutions. Without this balance, democracy itself doesn’t work, as we see in Hamas’s democratic Gaza or Milosevic’s democratic Serbia. He quotes former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson: “Responsible, self-governing citizens do not grow wild like blackberries, which is why a conservative political philosophy cannot be reduced to untrammeled libertarianism. Citizens are cultivated by institutions and families, religious communities, neighborhoods and nations.”

[8] And this is not just hypothetical. In recent years, I’ve at times been a regular listener to Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. It leans left, but a noteworthy theme throughout the Obama administration was David Plotz’s warnings against Obama’s increasing use of executive authority. On the one hand, the podcasters were sympathetic—if congress refused to work with the executive branch, that left unilateral executive authority as the only option for governing, and the podcasters were usually sympathetic to Obama’s goals. But Plotz in particular was dire in his assessment of this path, saying that what worked in one’s favor in one administration would work against one in the next. An ever-growing accumulation of power in the presidency was something—said Plotz—that we’d come to regret.