(Note: Below is a reflection on the problems with how we discuss politics at church. For context, I’ve noticed this pattern in the churches I either attend or am familiar with, which are largely evangelical, conservative, Asian American, and multi-generational with leadership over the age of 50.)
Shortly after the 2012 presidential elections, I engaged in an email discussion about the role of evangelical faith in American politics with a few older men from my church. Those involved in the discussion were not out to advertise their own political agendas nor did we see eye to eye with each other. We were simply concerned with the increasing polarization of opinions in American politics and how to have constructive dialogue in the church context.
Some shared their frustrations with experiences of poorly handled discussions in politically diverse churches. In our congregation, political conversation is either a) non-existent, or if it is existent, it is b) artificially cordial, or c) passive aggressively hostile. The men involved shared recent situations from the third scenario where other church members questioned their faith by how they voted. “You voted for who?!” others asked in disbelief. “How can anyone call themselves a Christian if they vote for a democrat?” “You can’t vote for Obama. He supports gay marriage and is pro-choice!” Comments such as these demonstrate not only the hotly contested and emotionally invested nature of politics, but also why Christians who must worship together each week are reluctant to talk about these things with one another. Emotions may get out of whack, judgments of crazy, misguided, or irrational may be thrown around, and ultimately friendships and congregations may get fractured. It’s no wonder many evangelical Christians sweep politics under the carpet.
Yet all the men in our email correspondence were involved exactly because they grew tired of how political conflict caused such tension. We wanted to tackle the elephant in the room because we believed our faith, and our church, demanded it. We unanimously agreed that faith should play an important role in how one votes, and how one engages in politics more broadly. We also reached consensus on the importance of treating one another with humility, respect, and kindness and to avoid painting those we disagree with as crazy or irrational. Our final, and perhaps most important conclusion, was to acknowledge where our political loyalties lay and how those biases taint our perceptions of rival groups. Acknowledging how these emotionally charged issues can lead to deeply entrenched beliefs and thus rivalries was a helpful first step in having respectful dialogue.
Even though I see the good in each of these takeaways and agree with them all, I still felt uneasy with our conversation because it did not answer one crucial question. Yes, we all agreed that faith should determine our decision making process (including voting), yet it often seems as if many remain clueless for why we still come to very different conclusions on which issues or candidates to side with. Evangelicals claim biblical passages and values shape our political beliefs, and rightly so, yet many times it stops there and we fail to examine all the other variables that contribute to how a person comes to such faith conclusions. For instance, when we think about the individual Christian’s and Church’s role in politics, we misunderstand each other about how we’re defining “church,” “politics,” and how the two intersect. We all have different views on the role of the government and the role of the church in the world and society including who defines and how to define what is right versus wrong; different understandings on the threats or social problems that need to be addressed, if these threats are individual or systemic, and who or what will alleviate these threats and bring about that change. We even disagree on whether Christians should work towards that change in the first place. (And this list barely touches upon all the controversies with biblical interpretation that come to mind.) If we cannot come to some consensus on these basic questions, or at the very least acknowledge these discrepancies exist among Christians, we will never be able to move forward together as the unified Church.*
Discussing politics is not simple and it’s easy to tune it out or regurgitate simplistic answers from our favored political personalities. Oftentimes, I too just want clear, direct, and nuance-free answers so I can know what to do and start doing it. But what I’ve come to realize is that while the exploration of such questions above may not come fast or easy, in the interest of truth, understanding, and dialogue, it is necessary and at times deeply satisfying. As we reflect on these questions, we better understand ourselves, our values, our non-negotiables, what’s important to us, and thus why we do what we do – or support who we support. Moreover, our understanding increases towards those we disagree with, as we can better appreciate where they’re coming from. Examining ourselves in these ways, I believe, will allow us to use politics not as a soapbox for our positions, but as a launching pad for inward change and compassionate dialogue.
*And I no longer believe the Christian solution to solving society’s ills is church-base social programs, or for people to do individual acts of kindness towards others (the latter, a view evangelicals with an apolitical bent often espouse). Although these are part of the solution, Kerry Pimblott argues that the church is incapable of handling the large-scale programs necessary to address the scale of social problems we face. She instead advocates for Christians to support and reinvigorate governmental programs and “secular” institutions in assisting us to achieve our goals of social justice, a view which I support.
Our organization, Asian American & Pacific Islander Christians for Social Justice (AAPI-CSJ) held our first conference called AAPIs Seeking Biblical Values and Social Justice. It was our effort as committed Christians to discuss the AAPI Church’s role in American politics and society, and how we can move forward together to achieve our goals of reconciliation and social justice.
Check out our website at: apisjchristians.tumblr.com
Or our facebook page at: www.facebook.com/apicsj
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