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BEWILDERING: Campaign posters in Basra, Iraq, in April.
Associated Press/Photo by Nabil al-Jurani
BEWILDERING: Campaign posters in Basra, Iraq, in April.

A policy of engagement

Politics | The Fourth of July reminds Americans what energizes us as a global neighbor

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

I’ve heard it said in church sanctuaries, at dinner parties, and in the Little League bleachers. I know it’s being said somewhere right now, in the halls of summer denominational gatherings, along the Fourth of July parade route, or over a sizzling grill.

“I don’t do politics.”

Beyond a classic shibboleth disguised for the moment as hipster, this statement for the Christian is a trap. 

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John Stott offers a helpful way out. The British theologian, writing in his 1999 Human Rights and Human Wrongs noted that “politics” has both a broad and narrow definition:

Broadly speaking, “politics” denotes the life of the city (polis) and the responsibilities of the citizen (polites). It is concerned, therefore, with the whole of our life in human society. Politics is the art of living together in a community. According to its narrow definition, however, politics is the science of government. It is concerned with the development and adoption of specific policies with a view to their being enshrined in legislation. It is about gaining power for social change.

It’s hard to escape “the science of government” with its specific policies in the art of living together in a community. It’s hard to keep Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves without in some form doing politics.

Jesus never took up a political agenda but in the broader sense, as Stott wrote, “His whole ministry was political” and carried political implications. The Kingdom of God He proclaimed was radical, a new and different social organization that challenged the old order. Mary foretold, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52).

This energized earlier evangelicals who launched democratic reforms, and democracy itself, out of the profound idea that all men are created equal before God. The implements of men—politics, science, art, and industry—become therefore important. As Puritan Cotton Mather put it, “The very wheelbarrow is to be with respect looked upon.” 

But starting in the early 20th century evangelicals grew preoccupied—by necessity—with defending the truth and authority of Scripture against those in the church who wanted to discard it in favor of a social gospel. That battle has continued in varying shapes, and one result is many Bible believers today think of politics as a necessary evil for some, or all of us every four years or so, but otherwise an option among many, like choosing yoga over pilates.

The DIY approach is yielding disastrous results at home and abroad. Iraq is the most urgent example, where millions of Americans served, thousands died, and hundreds now may serve again because we cannot escape its strategic importance and our history. 

The United States persisted for a decade in equating democracy with holding elections in Iraq. In the latest parliamentary elections in April about 50 parties fielded candidates for 328 seats—nearly all divided along ethnic and religious lines. Seemingly broad-based and “democratic,” the U.S.-orchestrated process instead has yielded bewildering choices for voters, weak government after weak government, and coalitions that can govern only by intimidation and corruption. Only Washington was taken by surprise when it fell at the first serious militant offensive.

So what can it mean to “do politics”?

It means invest in the complexities. Military solutions become necessary only when we fail at other forms of intervention, and at a strategic approach to global affairs. 

Recognize that elections do not a democracy make. Democracy is based on a profoundly radical view of man and individual liberty. It does not require Christianized society, but it takes entrenched civil society along with government structure, and it requires a high view of law to overcome ethnic and religious divides.

Finally, embrace a God-breathed view of man. Men and women everywhere are created by God, yet prone to sin. This leads us away from the twin shoals of fearing man and idealizing man. In current policy terms, our view of Muslims is too low (they can’t govern themselves), and our view of jihadist terrorists is too high (they can’t be beat). We can do better. We can do politics.


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