In the heat of each political season, we are bombarded by arguments about which candidate is the moral choice and which political platform is most compatible with Christian values and beliefs. Such arguments typically place a heavy emphasis on specific issues and policies – and rightly so.
But throughout our debates about short-term goals and final outcomes, we should also consider the more foundational aspects of such actions. As Christians, our political responsibility involves more than filling circles on ballots or siding with particular people, parties, or platforms. Beyond supporting or opposing issues X, Y, and Z, we also bear witness to the truth through the posture of our public witness.
How do we love our neighbors well in the realm of politics, even (or especially) when we disagree? A new documentary, For Love of Neighbor: Politics for the Common Good, explores that question at length, pointing Christians toward a renewed political imagination when it comes to bearing witness to the truth in a pluralistic society.
“In politics, our theological training is about issues,” explains David French in one interview. “What you’re not taught is how important it is to be salt and light while being a part of the body politic.”
The film, produced by the American Enterprise Institute’s Initiative on Faith and Public Life, includes interviews with thought leaders from a variety of positions and perspectives, from thinkers like Arthur Brooks and Amy Black to theologians like Vincent Bacote and Russell Moore to practitioners like Sen. Ben Sasse and Justin Giboney. Grounding its core message in the stories of three people – an activist, a city councilwoman, and a senator – the film highlights several distinct aspects of what it means to serve faithfully in politics, whatever your position of power.
Through the story of Giboney, the founder of the AND Campaign, we see the importance of drawing clear distinctions between Christian activism and partisanship. Giboney started the group to educate and empower Christians toward a new approach to civic and cultural engagement, one that operates outside the narrow issue- and party-based advocacy typically found among such groups.
Since its inception, the group has fulfilled that purpose, confounding partisan categories on a number of its positions, from pro-life advocacy and immigration policy to religious liberty protections and criminal justice reform. “It’s OK to have partnerships and be allies,” explains Giboney, “but at some point we have to be distinctive … so that Christians aren’t just settling for what they get from their party. They are actually willing and equipped to be different in that space.”
To remain distinctive, Giboney believes Christians need to be wary of the temptation to constantly self-protect through political means, thinking only of ourselves rather than through a broader lens of human liberty and human rights. By giving way to the typical partisan game, Giboney argues, Christians quickly become just another special interest group in a sea of power-hungry status seekers:
When we enter the public square, the civic conversations, and the discourse, people should know we’re Christians, and we should enter in with those principles – not for Christian self-interest, but for the common good, the community, and all those around us, whether they are within our faith or not …
I always talk about the politics of Christian self-interest, where our whole focus was, “How do we make sure that we are free to do this and that?” … I think that’s problematic when you look at the Gospel. Because Christians aren’t here primarily to serve themselves or to protect themselves. We are here to serve God through serving others, and looking at others’ interests, as well, whether they are Christians or not.
This shift makes all the difference, not only in how we understand certain issues and the nature of freedom, but also in how we view our political opponents and navigate our disagreements.
“It is completely possible for Christians to engage in the public square where values are not shared, because that’s where Christianity emerged in the first place,” says Moore. “We don’t believe that the Gospel needs some sort of state power for it to advance. As a matter of fact, state power actually devolves Christian witness.”
Instead, Christians ought to share a deeper and broader vision of freedom, one that puts love of neighbor at the forefront of all considerations. “The role of the Christian in many ways is not just to be insular and protect your own liberty and autonomy in a pluralistic society,” French explains. “It’s to help a pluralistic society thrive and function, and one of the concrete ways of doing that is to fight for the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself – to create a common sense of shared fellowship around a shared social compact that says, ‘Each one of us has a place in this country, and I will protect your place in this country.’”
Through the story of Sarah Imboden, a town council member in Red Hook, N.Y., we see the power of this perspective applied in the context of local politics. “Showing up and figuring out what the tax rate should be for your town budget, or where the sidewalks should be built … all those things are loving my neighbor,” explains Imboden. “The change that can happen locally and the ability of politicians and public officials to actually listen to people and to feel impacted by the positions is a lot greater locally.”
It’s easy to be overly consumed by prominent national debates, but according to the principle of subsidiarity, it is often at these lower and middle layers of society that the most fruitful work often takes place. “Local politics is a place where the Christian political vocation can really work itself out with power,” says Greg Thompson, a pastor and theologian. “Part of that is because we’re working alongside our neighbors, and we’re accountable to our neighbors. We’re working together for schools, and for parks, and for roads – things for our children. Local politics just has a form of accountability to it, because you know you’re going to see somebody at the grocery store.”
The film then points us to the story of Tim Scott, the Republican senator from South Carolina, who shows that mundane faithfulness is possible even in the nation’s most concentrated and corrupt power centers. Scott views his role in the Senate through a common-good lens, constantly asking whether his actions align with what he calls a “Matthew 25 mandate.” Whether observed through his work on opportunity zones, workforce development, or police reform, Scott is always looking for ways to expand freedom and opportunity for those who have been left on the sidelines.
“If we’re going to have more traction under the wheels of the American Dream, we’re going to have to make sure that traction comes with it being alive and well for ‘the least of these.’ And that’s part of our responsibility,” he says.
Retaining that focus can be difficult, particularly amid the polarizing forces of our current media environment and the complexities of national policy. According to Scott, holding true to that perspective is “the most difficult challenge you face as a Christian in public service.”
Recalling the tense social climate after the Trayvon Martin shooting, Scott shares a moment when God reminded him about the importance of staying attentive to His voice. “The ability to absorb all of the world’s problems and challenges and solutions was not within my means,” Scott says. “But what I do have is a limitless capacity in the Lord, and what He wanted me to do was to spend a little more time focused on His wisdom and His discernment so that I could rightly prioritize my days and the information. If you’re going to deal with $23 trillion of debt, if you’re going to deal with a worldwide pandemic … you’d better be anchored in something bigger than yourself.”
It may seem overly simplistic, but staying anchored in the truth is a powerful means for showing others what hope and freedom actually look like. In a society that is always “searching for a savior,” Scott’s example reminds us that Christians can stay active and present in the tough political battles of the day while resisting technocratic hubris and the allure of political idolatry.
“Policy is not ultimately where you’re going to find your greatest hope, because politics is about maintaining order,” says Sen. Ben Sasse in the conclusion of the film. “Politics are just the frame, but the center of the picture is the true, the good, and the beautiful – the things you want to be free to do with your liberty.”
As Christians working and moving within the political sphere, we are called to seek justice through policy. Such work can do significant good in protecting human freedom and achieving justice. But as this film reminds us, we are also called to embody love throughout the rest of our political action – with our mouths, our hearts, and our hands – bearing witness to a particular vision of where life actually happens, how it’s meant to happen, and what it’s ultimately for.