Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Should Christians Join Political Parties?

Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a large segment of American Christianity, especially of those self-identifying as “conservative evangelicals,” has been firmly wedded to the Republican Party, to the point where the joke is now common that the Republican nickname of G.O.P. stands for “God’s Own Party,” instead of “Grand Old Party.” Now, Jim Evans at EthicsDaily.com thinks that Jim Wallis of Sojourners and R. Michael Lerner of the Network of Spiritual Progressives are simply a mirror image of partisanship, hitching the wagon of faith to the fortunes of a political party. I am not sure that is an accurate portrayal of the intentions of either Wallis or Lerner, but that is a subject for another day. Instead, I want to ask, Should Christians even join political parties?

Some parts of the Anabaptist tradition, after being persecuted and run out of several countries, took their longstanding belief in separation from “the world,” and of church/state separation, and turned it into an apolitical quietism–an ethic of “withdrawal from the world.” Other Christian traditions have also had such “quietist” strands. It is one way that the powerful writings of contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas are read. And, as an alternative to the idolatries of nationalism or of placing loyalty to a party or political ideology above loyalty to the Rule of God, such quietism has an undeniable appeal.

Others recognize a legitimate role for Christians to play in a democratic process (e.g., voting), but argue that all Christians should be independents since the gospel hardly lines up with the platform of any political party. But I don’t have any problem with voting or even with joining political parties, as long as we remember the argument that Dietrich Bonhoeffer made in his unfinished Ethik between “ultimate” and “penultimate” goods. Our ultimate loyalty is to the ultimate good, the Rule of God through Jesus Christ (which Bonhoeffer phrased in good Pauline/Lutheran fashion as justification by grace). But there are also penultimate goods: non-corrupt government, the absence of poverty, stable family life, just laws applied fairly, etc. The church as the People of God can and has survived without these penultimate goods. We do not need, for instance, liberal democracies to be the People of God. (Cf. Karl Barth, How to Serve God in a Marxist Land.)

But those penultimate goods are real goods and liberal democracy is, all things considered, better than alternatives. So, go ahead, check out party platforms, see which comes closest to the values of God as you understand them and join up. But, there are cautions. 1) Neither the nation, nor the party, nor the party ideology is God. No Christian should be a “true blue” party member. If the party is wrong, you must be the internal critic, even willing to side with a rival party if they are in the right and your party in the wrong. 2) Other believers will read things differently. They will either interpret gospel priorities differently or weight party platform planks differently, etc. Don’t show contempt for their faith because you disagree with their party affiliation or voting choices. You both have higher loyalties–or should. 3)In bringing your faith-inspired values to the political realm, be sure to have respect for others’ religious liberty and for church/state separation. Do nothing to make people of other faiths or no faith into second class citizens. The wheat and the tares must grow together until the harvest of the last day. (Matt. 13:24-30) 4)There is no religious test for political office in the U.S. Martin Luther once said he would rather be ruled by a “wise Turk,” (i.e. a Muslim) than a foolish Christian and John Wesley noted that if he were drowning, he would rather be noticed by a burglar who could swim than a bishop afraid of water! Vote for the candidate or party whose policies seem wisest, not for someone just because they are loud about their personal faith.

I am a registered Democrat, although my values are closer to the Green Party so that, if we can achieve the electoral reforms necessary for 3rd parties to be a help rather than hindrance in the U.S. system, I may change parties–unless the Democrats change. But I am often critical of my Party and its leaders. During the Clinton years, I was very critical of him–just usually from a different perspective than conservative Republican critics. And there are Republicans I have admired such as Eisenhower, Harold Stassen (primary author of the UN Charter), Mark Hatfield (for whom I would probably have voted if he had ever run for president), and others. As a strategist in movements for peace and human rights, I have never urged anyone to register Democrat (although I have urged Democrats to appeal more to peace folk). Instead, I want to create a strong peace and human rights presence in all major parties so that none can ignore us nor others tell us, “you have to vote for us because the others are worse.”

I want the Democratic Party to retake the Congressional majority this year, both houses if possible. I think this would be good for the nation. I want progressives to get more hearing from the Democratic leadership than the corporate shills of the “Democaratic Leadership Council.” And all of these goals are informed by my faith–but I am not infallible. My sisters and brothers in Christ who see things differently are not evil or pagan or damned for disagreeing with me. And my fellow citizens who are not Christian, whether they share my political views or oppose them, are not thereby “bad Americans.”

In the heat of vigorous debate, it is too easy to forget these things, and I am sometimes guilty.
So, this post is a reminder for me as well as others.

August 8, 2006 - Posted by | Christianity, church-state separation, politics, religious liberty, U.S. politics


  1. I don’t usually lead off comments on my own posts, but http://www.mediatransparency.org/story.php?storyID=141 has a story about Ken Connor, former head of the Family Research Council, also raising questions about Christian partisanship and its limits. This conservative brother is raising some of the same issues and has asked for friendly, civil debates between evangelicals with conservative politics and evangelicals with more liberal political views–reasoning together as sisters and brothers rather than seeing each other as enemies. Hooray for Ken Connor!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 9, 2006

  2. Oops! I forgot to credit Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists for this article tip. MLW-W

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 9, 2006

  3. Hey Michael, great post. I don’t have many insightful comments at the moment (not that I usually do).

    I think you touched on the first rule of Christianity and politics: don’t doubt the faith of another, just because their politics are different. People may believe the same thing theologically, but it may manifest itself differently in the political arena.

    Comment by Chance | August 10, 2006

  4. Hey, Chance. Or, they may NOT believe the same theologically or politically. They are still ANOTHER’s servant, so who am I to judge?

    Don’t worry. Before too long, I write on economics, again, and then we’ll have much to disagree over, again. Things will be back to normal. ūüôā

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 10, 2006

  5. LOL. Yeah, I probably phrased it like political disagreements are okay, but theological ones are not. Of course, fellow believers can have theological disagreements as well, and that doesn’t make them bad Christians. Although, at some point, theological disagreements separate believers from non-believers.But even then, we shouldn’t think they are “bad people”, but still respect and love them.

    Comment by Chance | August 10, 2006

  6. Yeah, I would say it doesn’t matter, as long as belonging to that party doesn’t make one forget who their ultimate allegiance is to. Unfortunately, that seems to be the trend in the U.S. I jokingly sometimes refer to Republicans as RepubliChristians. That’s probably not a very nice thing to do, but it feels pretty accurate.

    Comment by Wasp Jerky | August 11, 2006

  7. […] is not enough.¬† (For my previous reflections on whether Christians should join political parties, click here¬†and here.) We also need grassroots organizing in order to change the terms of conversations, […]

    Pingback by Changing the Direction of the Wind « Levellers | July 3, 2007

  8. […] tried to do the same with the Democratic or Green or (rarely) Socialist parties.¬† As I have said before, political parties are all flawed and while one or more may, at a given time and place, be more in […]

    Pingback by Gushee on Christian Leaders and Politics « Levellers | July 12, 2007

  9. You wrote, “John Wesley noted that if he were drowning, he would rather be noticed by a burglar who could swim than a bishop afraid of water!”

    This is so interesting! Do you remember where you read this, or where I can find it?

    Comment by new reader | October 3, 2007

  10. Welcome, NR. I think I read that Wesley quote in a church history textbook. Unfortunately, Wesley’s collected writings are not organized by date or topic, but by whether they are sermons, tracts, etc. And there is no comprehensive index–yet. Sorry.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 3, 2007

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