How much political involvement can Christians stomach and still remain true to their faith? A cadre of religious believers in America is considering a mal-nourishing proposal: that followers of Jesus should "fast" from politics for two years.
David Kuo, an evangelical Christian who once worked for the Bush administration in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has advocated this suggestion in The New York Times. Such a fast, he explains, would entail giving up "intense political activism" such as sending letters to Congress, volunteering for campaigns, and "engaging in political arguments with friends." The only political activity Christians would engage in is voting. With all of the free time and saved energy resulting from not "making political arguments" or watching "crazy political news," Kuo argues, followers of Jesus could spend more time hanging out with their families and helping the poor.
This proposition is one among many recent warnings to religious believers not to align the Kingdom of God with any particular political regime. (Jim Wallis, Senator John Danforth and others have made similar arguments.) The point is worthy of attention: Wedding the gospel to a particular nation-state or party is harmful to democracy and downright idolatrous for faith.
Yet, despite its good intentions, the call for Christians to eliminate politics from their daily regimen, even if only for a season, is unworkable and unhealthy, for faith as well as the public square. The proposition's impracticality becomes most apparent when considering what it would mean for Christians to stop "engaging in political arguments with friends."
Consider a mother (let's call her Nancy) attending her son's Little League baseball game in Northern Virginia. She turns to Monica, a fellow parishioner at the small Methodist church down the street, and asks if she would be willing to help prepare some pies to deliver to a homeless shelter. Monica informs her that a ban is being considered by the County Board of Supervisors that requires that all food delivered to the homeless shelter be prepared in a government-approved commercial kitchen. Unfortunately for Nancy, their church kitchen (let alone the kitchen in her own home) does not meet the criterion. It seems that Nancy's desire to feed the hungry -- and to involve her children in an act of giving -- could become unlawful in this particular instance.
As the sun dips below the left-field fence, Nancy begins to respond to Monica, but pauses, remembering that she has agreed to "fast" from politics. Protesting or lobbying the County Board would definitely contradict her fast; even debating the situation with Monica would be considered a "political argument with a friend." Yet the very reason she decided to retreat from such political activity in the first place was to focus more on serving the poor. What should she do?
This is not a far-fetched hypothesis, for a similar ordinance was debated recently in Fairfax, Va. But even if we set aside the particularities of the situation, Nancy's dilemma reveals the inescapably political nature of everyday life. How should we care for those in need? How should we pursue health and safety for ourselves and others? How should we raise our children to appreciate certain values? Is it good that Little League games take place during dinnertime? Politics understood in its classical sense is a conversation about how to structure our lives together, which means that each of these questions is political.
In this light we can see how unhelpful the proposal for Christians to "fast" from politics really is. Calling for a withdrawal from the political realm for two years implies that religious faith concerns something other than these basic questions of life. It seems that the only way such a suggestion makes sense is to make two prior assumptions: religion concerns what happens after one dies, politics concerns what happens in Washington, D.C. Both assumptions are woefully inadequate and incomplete.
Engaging in politics, and especially political conversations with friends and neighbors, is not like eating chocolate -- something one can choose to forego without great consequence. We encounter politics everyday; it stretches from the Little League pitcher's mound to Capitol Hill, and is bound up as much with sharing pies as it is with shaping policy. The key is to discern which policies to engage, and how to do so while maintaining primary identification with the gospel.
For Nancy not to challenge or debate such a ban on charity out of a church kitchen could be inconsistent with, rather than liberating to, her faith. In Nancy's case, a conversation with Monica about the ban would be warranted because of her faith, not in spite of it. She would pursue political action with the motivation of serving the poor, not seeking political power. The problem with a blanket, a prioridecision to "fast" from political conversations is that it fails to distinguish between the two.
The original question concerning "how much" politics faithful Christians can stomach turns out to be the wrong question. A better question is how each believer should cultivate discernment -- a "discriminating taste," to continue the metaphor -- to engage the right political opportunities in the right way.
Politics, like food, is neither poison to be avoided nor one optional item to be laid aside, and it can become the object of unhealthy craving and addiction. Faith provides a palate according to which particular policies and political methods are -- or are not -- judged to be healthy, nourishing and worthy of pursuit. Public discourse harms both faith and democratic politics when it assumes the two can be separated.
Ryan Messmore in the William E. Simon Fellow in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in WashingtonPost.com