With the start of the 2016 election season now coinciding with the publication of Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church, we are reminded of the beginnings of this book project. As the 2012 election cycle began picking up steam, we embarked on a journey to research the ways five diverse congregations engage and avoid politics, and the reasons they give for doing so. Our project was ignited by a popular book by two political scientists that declared, “there is little politics in church.”[i] We set out to explore that claim by offering a theological analysis that attends to the deeply formative nature of everyday church practices. During our visits, we came to believe that there is, in fact, a lot of politics in church—if you know where to look—and further, that claiming their life as deeply political could help churches stay faithful to their mission in the world.
American culture teaches us to think of politics fundamentally in terms of partisanship—a Weberian sense of politics that consists solely in the attempt to influence the use of coercive power, a concept of politics tethered to state or political party. In their captivity to this limited notion of politics, and in the absence of compelling alternative models for faithful Christian political engagement, churches often fall into one of two traps—avoiding politics entirely, or pledging allegiance to a particular issue or party.
Both responses reflect a poor understanding of the church’s political identity. During our research we came to believe that this thin conception of politics (held by scholars and ordinary churchgoers alike) profoundly obscures the inherently political character of the church—which is, at its core, a community defined by its allegiance to a new King and its citizenship in a new Kingdom. The church is an inescapably political body, called to embody a new and different form of politics in and to the world.
Our book, Kingdom Politics, argues that the church needs a new political vision, one that takes its cues about the nature of politics not from state or party, but from another political reality: the Kingdom of God. And during our visits to churches around the country, we caught glimpses of ordinary practices that have the potential to help the church build just such a vision.
The topic of church and politics has become trendy in recent years. So why write another book about it? While many scholars have examined the ways churches engage in political activity, these treatments are often limited by their thin account of political activity, locating the political in partisan endorsements or policy advocacy from the pulpit. Likewise, theological accounts often focus too heavily on theoretical assessments made from armchairs, removed from the lived experience of churchgoers. If theology is to be truly in service of the church, it needs to pay attention to what is actually going on in churches.[ii] So we decided to go visit churches, talk with church leaders, participate in church meetings and events, and reflect on our observations. We point to models that churches can use to better navigate their inherently political life, using a style of theological research and writing called lived theology.
Schleiermacher once wrote, “It can only be greatly detrimental on all sides when the leaders of one church community are not acquainted with the true condition of the rest.”[iii] And so, we have written this book to offer insights to practitioners and church leaders about the promises and pitfalls embodied in the practices of other congregations. This book is for those who are concerned about the ways Christians engage in politics, those wondering if churches can faithfully engage in politics, and those who question what politics has to do with the church in the first place.
Kingdom Politics offers snapshots of the ways congregations are thinking about, engaging, or avoiding politics. Each chapter offers an analysis of one congregation and highlights practices of that congregation in their complexity—both when they fall short and when they offer examples for others of the ways churches can practice a faithful politics. Our analysis of each church focuses on three areas of practice: worship, leadership structure, and missions.
Our first stop is Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, the Evangelical mega-church home of Rick Warren. At a congregation known for seeker-sensitivity, conservatism, and the Purpose Driven movement, we discovered a broad missions agenda that positions the church, not government, as the answer to the world’s social problems. Next we visit Solomon’s Porch, one of the first Emergent Church communities, comprised primarily of post-Evangelicals in Minneapolis, whose “intentional unintentionality” offers a provocative twist on the formative potential of church practices. Next comes First & Franklin Presbyterian Church, a mainline congregation in Baltimore, struggling with declining membership and attempting to re-energize itself through its inclusivity and advocacy for gay rights. Prairie Street Mennonite Church in small-town Elkhart, Indiana is a congregation from the often politically withdrawn Anabaptist tradition that advocates for its local neighborhood in front of the city council and allows its encounter with immigrants to inspire its push for national immigration reform. We end with Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, former home of Martin Luther King, Jr., a church that unabashedly wears its political character on its sleeve and engages in overtly political activities like voter registration and sermons dedicated to the universal healthcare bill, but embeds these within deep commitments to personal growth in faith and the story of Scripture.
Through our exploration of these churches and their various models of political engagement, we argue for the deeply political implications of their ordinary practices, identify pitfalls inherent in each snapshot, and highlight exemplary practices that may serve as models for other congregations. We claim that the church is an inherently political body—a community defined by its allegiance to a new King, its citizenship in a new world, and its call to pursue a new way of life with and for its neighbors. If churches begin to understand their political character in this way, they will realize that our call is not merely to run from the language and activity of politics, nor to accept it on the terms of state and party, but to embody and witness to a different type of politics.
As long the church looks to the state or the media to define and model politics, its political imagination will be stunted by an overwhelming ethos of partisan rivalry, and its political identity bound to a framework of partisanship. And yet, to avoid getting involved in significant social (and yes, political) issues that the church should have a stake in—such as immigration policy, racial justice, and abortion—is to miss important opportunities to faithfully engage the world.
The church’s response to an overly-partisan public arena should be neither to join a camp, nor to abandon politics altogether, but to orient its allegiance toward the only Kingdom that transcends parties and nations, tribes and tongues, cultures and generations. The church must learn to understand politics not as fundamentally divisive, but as a framework that unites believers in allegiance to a common King and Kingdom. And perhaps a church that takes this posture could find greater unity with people who do not share its ultimate allegiance, by identifying and pursuing common loves with and for them.
We contend that claiming their activity—indeed, their very communal identity—as deeply political helps churches witness to a world weary of politics that an alternative, even redeemed, political imagination is possible. Here are three examples of how this can happen:
1. For churches that tend to avoid discussing important social or moral issues for fear of being “too political,” recognizing the deeply political character of all of the church’s activity might help recast the act of taking a stand on controversial issues not as an act of allegiance to a party, but as an act of allegiance to Jesus as King. A church that is radically secure in its identity as a political body with allegiance only to Jesus is free to engage controversial issues all over the political spectrum without the crippling fear of being pigeonholed as “conservative” or “liberal.”
2. For churches (both left-leaning and right-leaning) that tend to align themselves too closely with a particular party or overemphasize a particular political issue, recognizing the depth and breadth of the church’s political mission can keep the church from a disordered allegiance to party or issue. This might broaden the church’s imagination about the kinds of political causes it should support, or the kinds or partners it could work with. The book offers examples of how the church might collaborate in larger political structures without compromising its particular identity and mission.
3. For churches of both categories, understanding the church as deeply political will help leaders harness the formative power of their congregation’s practices. Regularly-performed practices of worship and mission form our hearts to believe certain things about the nature of God, God’s Kingdom, and our role in it.[iv] But this process is most effective when we understand the formative potential of our practices, and intentionally orient them toward a desired end—in this case, a rightly ordered allegiance. N. T. Wright argues, “practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works…. Our conscious mind and heart need to understand, ponder, and consciously choose the patterns of life which these practices are supposed to produce in us and through us.”[v]
We hope Kingdom Politics will offer insights into congregational life, guides for readers to evaluate the political implications of their own church practices, and suggestions for how churches can better integrate their spiritual and social missions through a deeper understanding of the political character of the church.
Kristopher Norris & Sam Speers are authors of Kingdom Politics: In Search of a New Political Imagination for Today’s Church (Cascade Books, 2015), from which this article is adapted. The research for this book was funded by a grant from The Project on Lived Theology. For more information or to purchase the book, visit kingdompolitics.com.
[i] Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 442.
[ii] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 3rd edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 97-98.
[iii] Schleiermacher, Brief Outline, 41.
[iv] See James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009).
[v] N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 259.