Evangelical Politics

Just the other day I was going through some things my parents left behind after a recent visit. Stuffed next to some snacks in a paper grocery bag were several political flyers. They were the cardboard kind that you sometimes get in the mail or that a candidate’s supporters sometimes leave on your doorstep. We’ve recently had municipal elections here in Ontario, so I’ve seen a lot of these lately. Actually, just last week I received a visit from a campaign surrogate asking if I would support a particular candidate in next year’s federal election. He left a flyer too.

The flyers my parents brought from Pennsylvania caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Some of them were actually addressed to me, which was odd. One of the congressional candidates graduated from the same high school I did. That was also odd. But what caused me to read the flyers twice was the way the candidate used religious language. The words stood out: God, Mennonite, Amish, Bible, love, faith. This is not the language I see on these handouts here in eastern Ontario.

The flyers reminded of a recent book by the philosopher Jamie Smith.[1] One of Smith’s key points is two-sided: politics is always religious and faith communities are always political. Maybe the language of faith on the campaign flyers shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. Smith’s book, called Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, is a winding read that connects us with some of the key voices in contemporary Christian political theology. For the uninitiated, the volume probably feels a bit too much like a series of book reports. However, Smith is an excellent popularizer and a number of his central claims are worth our attention on these high holy days of democracy.

First, there is the reminder that politics is not just voting. It is not even just about government or public policy. Politics is a shared project, a wrestling with what kind of a people we want to become. It takes many forms. Politics isn’t just an expression of what we already think or who we are: politics forms what we think and shapes who we are.

Some of this forming and shaping is quite valuable. In a democracy we practice the belief that everyone has one, and only one, vote. This is a good thing. What’s not as helpful is the way in which the current news-cycle-centric way of doing politics nurtures in each of us the view that other citizens are our enemies. Neither is it helpful when it pushes candidates to differentiate themselves with outlandish stunts. It’s also not helpful when it gives us the impression that elected leaders can do more than is really possible. Every candidate claims that they will make the economy work for us. They all claim that they, and they alone, will clean up the capital and ensure that our voices are heard. They claim that they will make our lives better, more meaningful, less difficult. They tell us who our enemies are. This isn’t just asking for our vote; it is telling us what to value and telling us what to love. These are religious claims.

Some government, many governments, harbour sacred pretensions. Smith’s book, with its focus on liturgy, reminds us of this. It is no accident that governing officials seek to be installed through religious-like services. At their best, such services remind leaders that their authority is delegated and that their party affiliation is secondary. However, these services do not always serve such good ends. It is in the interest of those in power to endow their roles with a sacred mystique. It is curious that at the same moment when we see the presidency of the US occupied by a man without a shadow of holiness, that the public seems to be investing the office with ever-more worshipful attention, as though whoever holds it can make the sun rise and speak for the whirlwind.

This brings us to the notion of evangelical politics. Evangelical politics should be different.

If you’ve ever flown from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to a US destination, you’ve experienced something of what an evangelical politics should feel like. This is not a reference to long lines and too-little parking. Smith offers this analogy near the end of his book. What happens, if your travels take you this way, is that you go through US customs and passport control before you leave the Toronto airport. That part of the airport is even made to feel like the US. Posters of iconic US landmarks, both man-made and natural, adorn the walls. You can make purchases with US dollars. When your plane lands at a US airport you and your fellow passengers are treated like domestic arrivals. So, even though your flight may not have left Toronto, you feel as though you have “made it in.” It’s the same at many other major Canadian airports. These spaces are, as Smith puts it, “between spaces of overlapping authorities” (161).

If a politics is really evangelical it should feel like this. The authority of governments is not ultimate; it is overshadowed by God’s. Civil authority is delegated. It only exists for a time. This is precisely what the Latin root of the term ‘secular’ means. An evangelical politics should not be a politics tethered to a few divisive issues. Rightly understood, it is an approach to politics centered on the claim that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and that this means something for how we conduct our lives together. It is an odd political starting point. Yet it means at least, and here I insert my views not Smith’s, that creation matters. Why else would God take on flesh? It means that to campaign on fear is to propel the enemy. It means that we must always be open to the call of repentance. It means that we love our neighbours because they’re human, not because they belong to our party. It means that the policies that shape our life together are always interim solutions and never final justice. It means that we should be deeply skeptical of those who claim violence as a solution to anything. It means . . . and I could go on.

A government, Smith reminds us, is only one aspect of how we negotiate our shared life. How we treat each other economically is politics. How we speak to each to each other is politics. Our decisions on whether we build soccer field or not, whether we build bike paths or not, what events are featured at the fare, how we organize our public space—all that is politics. And so too is the political entity known as the church. Christian communities are not political because they advocate for candidates or weigh in on certain issues. They are political because they have a vision for how we ought to live together (in ways that acknowledge religious differences). They are political because they have a stake in what we love. Churches are political because they are caught up in the task of forming lives of truth, beauty and goodness.

I am not at all opposed to candidates using the language of faith in their campaigns, so long as it doesn’t distract them from grappling with actual matters of policy. In reality, pulling out one vocabulary set that addresses our ultimate goals and motives always requires replacement with another. What’s worth more attention in this political season are the kinds of things Smith puts before us in Awaiting the King. It’s worth thinking about the ways the politics of government forms us. It’s worth thinking about the type of people the current version of the democratic process calls us to be.

[1] James K. A. Smith’s book Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (2017) is the third in his Cultural Liturgies project. This volume is not quite as readable as the first. It is also more narrowly focused in places, which is probably because a chunk of the book’s content is repurposed academic essays. Smith also hones in on issues of particular relevance to his Reformed tribe. This means that Smith spends more time than necessary trying to develop a Christian account of directional pluralism and too little on the actual content of the NT (esp. Jesus’ teaching). For whatever reason, as he does in most of his writing, Smith tries to stay above the fray and avoids taking specific positions on the contentious issues of the day. Still, I do recommend the book and thank the publisher for providing a review copy.

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