How can we address the problem of political polarization within the American Christian community?

Q. I have become increasingly upset about the intense polarization of political life in the United States. However, I am even more alarmed that this polarization has become part of Christian life in the United States. I will state up front that I am totally turned off by so-called “Christian nationalism,” by Christian support for Donald Trump, and by the Christian banners/themes on display on January 6 at the Capitol. So that is my bias. My questions are: What do you think happened (or has it always been this way, just not so visible)? And what can we do about it? I’m torn between wanting pastors to address this from the pulpit but, at the same time, not wanting to further inject politics into spiritual life. And do you have any advice for how I can set aside my own political biases and be part of the solution, not part of the problem?

When Jesus sent out the twelve apostles, he told them, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on that person, but if not, it will return to you.” I think that is what you are looking for in the first instance: “people of peace” within the American Christian community with whom you can begin to share your concerns.

One unfortunate fact of the current political polarization is that Christian people, in some cases, have come to believe, or have been led to believe, that certain political commitments are so important that they must not be challenged but instead be held and defended vigorously. The apostle James wrote, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere.” This is the kind of godly wisdom and character that we as Christians should cultivate. But unfortunately, as I said, some these days seem to have come to consider certain political commitments to be more important than being impartial and open to reason.

But fortunately, this is not the case for everyone. I think that if you look around carefully, you will find Christians on the side of the political spectrum that you describe who would actually be very open to hearing your concerns and considering them fairly. Those are the people you need to start with. You will probably not be able to speak constructively right now with people who are less open. But the people you are able to speak with now may eventually be able to speak with further people.

Readers of this blog will recognize from other posts that I largely share your concerns. I am recommending to you the approach that I have been following myself. For example, if I address a political issue on social media, I am selective about the people I share my thoughts with. I actually have a pared-down list of contacts that I use for such posts. I don’t want to alienate someone who would not be open right now to hearing what I have to say but who might become a collaborator for peace later on.

About some things we simply must speak up and hope that we are doing so in such a way that our manner will give no offense. If people with different political commitments are offended, let them be offended by the specifics of what we have to say, not by how we say it. And if we get push-back, let us deal with that graciously.

For example, on this blog I recently had occasion to explain that Jesus was indeed a refugee (specifically, an asylum seeker) in response to a claim to the contrary by a high-profile political figure. Such posts sometimes draw comments that suggest all Christians should be on the other side of the issue. But as I explain in my “About” feature, “Comments may be edited for length, tone, and content.” You can do the same thing yourself as you seek to engage others constructively about the concerns you have described. You can edit comments in your own head for length, tone, and content, and decide from there how best to pursue being a “person of peace” with the person making the comment and with others as well.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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