I think most academics require little persuasion to talk about the importance of their discipline. Most of us can easily wax on for quite some time about how fundamental our area of study is. So it feels odd to tell people that one of my favorite descriptions of politics compares my scholarly passion to a rotting corpse.
When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America,” he spent some time on the question of why America had such a vibrant religious life while his native France had, in his words, an “absence of religious faith.”
In his view, there was a simple explanation: faith becoming overly yoked to politics, like a living man shackled to a corpse drowning because of the weight. Subordinate faith to politics, he thought, announce one political faction as having the lock on Christian truth, and the public will reject the call of Christ for purely secular reasons.
I think de Tocqueville’s words are important for us to reflect on these days. The message is not that Christians should be apolitical, trying at all costs to stay out of politics.
I strongly believe that to not take full advantage of the political power you are afforded in a democratic system is to waste an opportunity granted to you by God, as in the parable of the talents. (I’ll be sending around folks to register you to vote soon, by the way!) When politics is a tool with such an incredible capacity to improve the lives of those around us, how can we stand idly by and leave it unused?
Nor should our faith fail to inform our political choices. The Bible guides us on issues such as stewardship of creation, choosing leaders and the fundamental love and respect we owe to every other human being (Galatians 3:28). When political questions that touch on those and other Christian principles arise, we should strive to reflect the Word of God.
De Tocqueville’s point, I think, is one of relationship and subordination. Our faith is above and beyond any political affiliation we might have. On the left–right political scale, we’re not called to camp on either side or to muddle in the middle. We follow a separate axis entirely. Sometimes, we may believe that the path we’re called to follow runs alongside that of one party, one leader or another. But when they diverge, as they inevitably must, it’s our political ties that we have to leave behind.
So when you talk to a fellow Christian whose faith has led them to a different path on some political issue, show compassion (for their wandering) and humility (we’re all imperfect, and there’s no guarantee you’re the one who got it right). When “your team” (for the moment) wins, be gracious. When you “lose,” pray with love for wisdom to the victors. Politics is a fantastically useful tool, and one we’re called to use for God’s glory. A tool though, cold and dead, is all it is.
Our Savior is alive.