Why People Say Christians Are Too Political, and How to Answer (Part One)

By Tom Gilson Published on March 13, 2024

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part story. We’ll publish audio for both parts in Part Two.

No doubt you’ve heard the complaint: Christians are “too political.” The amped-up version currently in play criticizes us for so-called “Christian nationalism.” Sometimes it even blares alarms about the dangers of “theocracy.” But there’s nothing terribly new about any of this.

In 2007, the Barna Group studied young people’s views on Christianity, and found that “too political” was one of their top negative impressions. “Looking at it from the outside,” said one young man, the Good News “seems to have been lost in exchange for an aggressive political strategy that demonizes segments of society.”

Seventeen years later, that impression has grown wild over concerns about Christians supporting Donald Trump, which could only mean that we are putting politics over religion. For many Christian leaders — especially progressives but even self-described evangelicals like Russell Moore — the way to save our witness for Christ is by dumping Trump.

That’s the impression. Now, let’s look at reality. I see six main reasons people think Christians are too political. I’ll cover four in this article, and two more in another piece to follow soon.

1. From Inside: “We Need to Preach the Gospel, Not Politics”

For some, “too political” means letting our politics take front seat ahead of Jesus Christ. I hear this from both outside and from within Christianity. Some say we shouldn’t talk politics or public policy, especially in church, because “we need to preach the Gospel.”

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Those advocating this position seem to forget the Gospel includes the Great Commission, where in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus instructs us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.” It’s also as if they believe those commands of His didn’t include the Second Great Commandment, which is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Letting public policy fall into anti-Christian hands is not an act of love.

2. From Inside: “Stop Embarrassing Us, You Conservative!”

Others on the Christian left and the squishy middle/right say conservatives are too political, yet have no compunctions about being highly political themselves. When they say we’re too political, I’d rather they’d say what they really mean: “You’re too conservative.” “You’re too pro-Trump.” “You’re interfering with our political agenda.” Or “You’re embarrassing us.”

In other words, it’s not that we’re too political — just that they don’t like our politics. Fine. Let them disagree. Just bear in mind that if they say it’s unchristian to engage in “so much politics,” you need not take them seriously.

3. From Outside: “I Know Your Religion Better Than You Do”

Nonchristians, too, sometimes worry that we’re putting politics ahead of Christ. I find that touching, considering many of them don’t believe He exists. I find it hard to take their criticism seriously for that reason.

Other times it’s a shame game in which they insist they know Christianity better than we do.

Sometimes it’s a shame game in which they insist they know Christianity better than we do.

The very atheistic New York Times columnist Frank Bruni provided asf classic example some time ago. He said he supports Christians doing and saying what we wish, as long as we do it in our “pews, homes, and hearts.” That’s where it belongs, he says, because public deeds such as “baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn … aren’t religious acts.”

The problem isn’t so much that Bruni is wrong (which he is), but that he’s making any kind of doctrinal statement at all. That’s exactly what it is: He is literally defining Christianity as private religion. How he acquired the right to deliver that decree is beyond me.

Christianity has never been a private religion. Jesus calls us to whole-life discipleship, and He decidedly did not tell us to hide our beliefs when we leave home or church.

4. From Outside: “This is a Secular State”

Others say religion doesn’t belong in politics because this is a “secular state,” and we should focus on “secular realities” everyone can agree on. It’s odd how that only works one way, and how you don’t see the people who say that strictly focused on things we can all agree on.

The idea seems to be that there’s some core of commonly held secular values and beliefs that should inform public policy. Religious values are add-ons to that core. Politics should focus on things we would still believe if we set our religion aside for that purpose.

This is a gross misunderstanding, and we cannot let it rule our beliefs or actions. To believe in Christ as revealed in Scripture is to see everything with different eyes. We who know that God created us in His image for His purposes cannot view ethics and policy the same way as those who think the universe exists for no reason, and that humans have no purpose other than what we invent for ourselves.

So their “secular core” doesn’t exist. Functionally, it’s closer to “things we could all agree on if you’d just give up your religion.” Lucky for them they have the First Amendment on their side. I’ll quote it for you: “Religion shall cause no interference respecting any decision of Congress, the judiciary, the executive branch, or the permanent bureaucracy.” What? You say that’s not in the Constitution? Tell that to the secularists!

So What Should We Change in Response?

So how do we answer this charge? First, each of us must ask whether we really are putting politics ahead of Christ. If your answer is yes, don’t try to fix it by adjusting your politics. Your first priority is straightening out your walk with Christ.

So whatever it takes, get your life centered on Him. Go find good a good pastor at a good church to give you good counsel. Heed what he says. Turn back fully to Christ!

We dare not compromise our convictions. We can explain them, though.

If that’s not true for you, you may still wonder if it may be wise to back down on political action anyway. Your accusers would like it better. You might think it could enhance your witness to them. Answer this question first, though: Do you see any good reason here why that would be the right thing to do? (I don’t. You’ll see even less in Part Two.)

We dare not compromise our convictions. We can explain them, though.

Make the Most of the Opportunity

Questions are always good starting points. So is defining your terms. So I would ask something like, “Help me understand: What specifically do you think is wrong about Christians being involved in politics?”

You might get a refreshingly honest answer: “I don’t like what you stand for, that’s all.” If that’s the case, just smile and say, “Then we’re even, friend. I don’t like your positions, either, but I won’t try to manipulate you out of standing up for them.”

More likely they’ll say there’s something unchristian about your involvement or your views. You could explain why that isn’t true, but I don’t recommend it. You’ll blow an opportunity. Instead ask, “Interesting. What do you think it means to be truly Christian?” Listen well, then ask, “Do you mind if I tell you how we believers would answer that question?”

If your accuser has an ounce of courtesy, he or she will say yes. That’s your open door to sharing the Good News with them.

It’s the right place to begin. Others will never understand why we care about politics without knowing the basics of God as sovereign Creator, His instructions for us, His design for human flourishing, ourselves as fallen sinners, and Christ as our redeemer — the Gospel, in other words. They’ll never really understand without life in Christ.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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