How does the kind of people we are as Christians affect our participation in civic life? What would it look like for believers to be a countercultural force in an era of polarization and division, rather than simply another interest group supporting its chosen political teams? And how can our institutions provide spiritual formation to help us engage faithfully in this sphere? As we enter an election year, it’s a fitting time to consider these questions.
Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Michael Wear confronts the relationship of faith and politics in his forthcoming book “The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life.” Rather than treating political activities as a tertiary interest, he claims that “politics is an essential forum in which we live out our love for God and neighbor.”
We hosted an Online Conversation with Michael Wear on January 26 to consider how to love our neighbors in the way we engage with public life.
Thank you to Zondervan for co-hosting this event!
Online Conversation | Michael Wear | January 26, 2024
Cherie Harder: And on behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, I want to add our own welcome to each of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Michael Wear on “Connecting Spiritual Formation to Public Life.” I’d also like to add my thanks to Zondervan for co-hosting this event with us. We’re always really delighted to partner and collaborate with you. And I want to welcome the more than 1,500 people who have registered for today’s Online Conversation, with a special welcome going out to the around 100 or so of you who are here for the very first time, as well as the more than 300 registrants from all around the world, from at least 37 different countries that we know of, ranging from Antarctica and Armenia—I think it’s the first time for someone from Antarctica, so a special welcome to you—and Pakistan to Paraguay. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones.
And if you are one of those folks who are joining us for the very first time or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian-thought leadership and provide a place where leaders and thinkers can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
We are at the beginning of what seems sure to be a frustrating, fractious, even frightening election year. We’ve seen our divisions deepen, political rhetoric grow more extreme and debasing, and a sense of partisan identity intensify and the threats of political violence increase. It’s an environment that often produces a sort of political fight-or-flight response, where some of us just hope to leave the scene entirely for our own protection, and others more motivated to fight fire with fire, or give as good as you got, and escalate policy disagreements into titanic battles of good versus evil. Even more sobering than these dynamics is that rather than serving as a bulwark or an antidote to these deforming pressures, many of our churches and faith communities have instead themselves been besieged or bewildered. A recent Barna study found that nearly 40 percent of pastors surveyed in the last year said they had seriously considered leaving the pastorate, and political pressures within the church was one of the primary reasons for doing so. I’m sure almost all of us can think of friendships or families, communities, churches, even entire denominations torn apart over political disagreements or cultural clashes and our inability to deal with them well.
Our guest today has argued that the toxicity of our politics is due, in his words, “not so much that there are broad swaths of committed Christians who make exceptionally bad contributions to our politics, but rather that there is nothing exceptional about their politics as all. Christians have become part of the problem not because of what our faith requires, but in spite of it. Rather than transforming a diseased political environment, we have ourselves become infected by it.” And in thinking how to best respond to the situation in front of us, he draws heavily from the late and great philosopher Dallas Willard—who I’m proud to say was a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum—the author of many books on both spiritual formation and philosophy, in which Dallas explores what moral knowledge in our time means. And drawing on that work, Michael Wear helps apply Dallas Willard’s thoughts about moral knowledge to our own political environment, and to explore what spiritual formation might mean for the reformation of our politics.
It’s a hopeful as well as challenging argument, and I’m so glad to welcome our guest today, who does a brilliant job of making it, Michael Wear. Michael is the founder and CEO of the Center for Christianity in Public Life, a nonprofit that contends for the credibility of Christian resources in public life. He is also a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. He previously served in the White House and on presidential campaigns, and as an adviser to a range of civic leaders on matters of faith and public life. He’s also written extensively for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times, Washington Post, Christianity Today, and many other publications, and is the author of Reclaiming Hope, as well as his brand-new work released just this week, The Spirit of Our Politics, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Michael Wear: It’s so good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. Great to talk with you. So as we start out, I always like to ask our guest about essentially the story behind the story. And Dallas Willard figures prominently throughout your work The Spirit of Our Politics, and so I wanted to ask you, how did Dallas’s thinking affect your own life, and how did it lead you to write what is largely an interpretation and application of much of his thought to a new realm, that of the political?
Michael Wear: Yeah. Well, thanks for the question. And again, thanks for having me. Dallas changed my life. When I was a young staffer in the White House, I was sent a copy of The Divine Conspiracy, which I thought had a weird title, and it was by Dallas Willard, who I had never heard of before. And I thought, I don’t have time to read this dense book from someone I’d never heard of before. But thankfully, my pastor back home in Buffalo who rarely wrote publicly, wrote a little blog post recommending this book. And so I thought, “Well, if I’ve been sent this book and my pastor is recommending it, I should pick it up.” And I read that book and it was like a second spiritual awakening in my life. And so personally, I, my family, we’ve made important decisions after and in response to Dallas’s teachings from Jesus and from the gospel. The reason why—Dallas thought that Jesus’s gospel was about the availability, the present availability, of the kingdom. He thought the Christian life was one of interactive relationship with Jesus in the here and now, that the gospel wasn’t just for what happened after you die, but, as he would say, eternity is in session now. And I think his perspective and many of the frameworks he uses, which we’ll talk about today, are really helpful in repositioning our politics in a way that is not over the gospel, is not outside of the gospel, but is under and within, is a part of. And that is a vital move to make for society and for the life of the Church in our lives as individuals. So, Dallas’s ideas have so shaped me, and, I think, as folks look at this book, hopefully, it will provide helpful paradigms for thinking about not just our politics, but our lives as Christians that touch on politics.
Cherie Harder: You know, as you made a diagnosis of our current political state in your book, I think you called our main problem one of sectarianism and made the case that really our chief problem is not an amorality of politics, but a misplaced moralism and an anger that often attends it or a distortion of it. Tell us a little bit more about that. What is the sectarianism that you believe we face? What are its characteristics and how did we get there?
Michael Wear: Yeah. So this certainly isn’t the only problem in our politics, but my goodness, it touches so many of the problems that we have in our politics. This framework of political sectarianism was advanced by a range of social scientists in 2020. I find it to be a tremendously helpful way to think about the particular kind of polarization we have today. Importantly, the social scientists avoid and their framework is not about whether we’re more polarized now than ever. I think sometimes that can be a trap and we get into pretty unproductive conversations instead. What they say is the particular kind of polarization we have today is, in their words, a “toxic cocktail” of three main ingredients: That’s aversion, which is the tendency to dislike and distrust those who are politically different from you, who hold different political beliefs; the tendency to “other” those who have a different political perspective than you; and then a misplaced moralization, as you referenced in your opening comments, this tendency to utimatize political difference, to turn political difference into a pure matter of iniquity or sin or a purely good and evil. And this toxic cocktail has disastrous consequences for links to governance, for political dysfunction proper within the political system. It also is bleeding out into and is increasingly pervading our social lives, our families, our churches, these tendencies of aversion, othering, and misplaced moralization. And so it’s a helpful framework. It’s one of the through-lines of the book, not only part of the diagnosis, but a sort of object of the application. I believe Christian resources offer a tremendous deal to undermine these pillars, these ingredients of aversion, othering, and moralization.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. We want to dig into those. But before we do, I want to ask you a little bit more about that seepage into different spheres of public life. And you—I was going to say coined a term—really kind of riffed off a term of Christian Smith. Christian Smith is a sociologist who’s well known for his scholarly work on something he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is sort of used to describe the widespread view, particularly among younger people, when he did his research, of sort of having a view that there’s a benign God who asks very little but kind of exists to sort of help me feel more healthy. And that’s kind of the somewhat squishy, ill-defined worldview that kind of guides their decision. You coined something called “political therapeutic deism,” and I wanted to ask you about that, in that it seems to speak at least a little bit to the seepage, in that it seems like you are essentially insinuating that people are going to church to get their political views affirmed while also seeking their identity, including even spiritual identity, in politics. What is going on and how did we get there?
Michael Wear: Yeah. So I’ve said before that politics is causing spiritual harm in America. A big reason for that is people are going to politics to get their spiritual needs met. That’s true, I believe. I think it’s also true that people are going to vague notions of God—and there are varying sort of degrees of how opaque it gets—but people are drawing on religious terms, imagery, to affirm their politics, to sort of provide supplemental support, for their political views. And political therapeutic deism is, I propose, it’s characterized by a few kind of typical beliefs. So, for instance, God is on my political party’s side. Or my views on political issues are a leading indicator that I am a true Christian. Or I do not understand how other Christians could vote for my candidate’s opponent. And so this is a framework, a tie between, again, more or less vague notions of God that actually are used to support one’s political views. I also talk in that section in the book about [how] in a previous era we saw—and this is still a theory, an approach—a seeker-sensitive church model. I argue that what we’re now seeing is a politics-sensitive church model. Churches are making decisions around attracting and not putting off potential or current congregants on the basis of political determinations. And these are all tied together.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. In your work, you draw a connection between the kind of people that we are and the kind of politics that we have. And on one hand, that seems indisputable. Of course there’s going to be a connection between who we are and what our politics looks like. But as I was thinking about it, too, you know, there were a few questions that that came up—in that it seems hard to believe that our character as a people was vastly improved, say, 25 years ago, even though our politics was—you know, and now it seems like a golden age—certainly more functional, more stable, and more civil. Which makes one think, well, how much of this, how much of our current predicament, is truly our character and our character problems or even our church problems, our religious problems, and how much is structural or technological? Obviously there’s not an easy divide between all of those, but what else is going on here?
Michael Wear: Yeah. So I think there are some other factors. I think I’m really clear—. So the book is grounded in this idea, this conviction, that the kind of people we are has much to do with the kind of politics and public life that we have. It’s not a one-to-one translation. But when we understand that the representative ideal of democracy, and when we understand that the kind of people we are has much to do with the kind of politics we have, it actually forces us to look at some of our structures differently. It means that we look at something like voting rights as not just a structural issue, a legal issue, but something that actually interacts with the agency of citizens in really important ways.
But I would say, I don’t know how productive sort of historic comparisons are. I would say that I do think it’s quite plausible that a) that our politics now, for the issues that are grabbing folks’ attention, both stem from and are not all that dissimilar from some of the political issues that were dominant 20, 25 years ago. I think actually some of the politics of the last 8 to 10 years, and one of the reasons why I wrote the book the way I did—it has very few references to current political controversies or current political figures—I think I’ve become concerned that the Christian discussion in particular has become so reactionary that we’re missing some of the deeper trends and some of the deeper frameworks that helped actually contribute to this moment. And so I do think it’s quite plausible that our character and the snowball effect of the— you know, David Campbell and Robert Putnam’s American Grace didn’t come out five years ago. They were warning about the conflation of what it meant to be a real Christian and a particular political ideology now over 15 years ago, I think. And so these things have a history. And what we’re at now is just sort of where some of those trends have taken us. And it’s not a great place, but also not completely without signals and signs and warning signs that we should have heeded decades ago.
Cherie Harder: Obviously there are a lot of people who interpret some of our current difficulties as the rotten fruits of mixing faith and politics. And you take a very different approach and argument, even the name of your organization, the Center for Christianity and Public Life. And you argue that actually our faith offers incredible resources for a reformed and healthy and flourishing life together, of which politics is a part. And in this work, one of the things that you talk the most about as being one of those resources is what Dallas Willard called moral knowledge, the reliability of moral knowledge. Tell us a little bit about what that is, how we know it, and how it applies to our current political predicament.
Michael Wear: Yeah. So perhaps Willard’s principal academic contribution is this idea of the disappearance of moral knowledge. By this, he’s referring to, roughly, in the post–World War II era, what he calls “gatekeepers of knowledge”—principally academia, but also others—acted as if and made decisions as if religious or moral knowledge could not be considered publicly available knowledge. At best perhaps it was of personal benefit and could be personally discerned. But it is not the thing, moral knowledge is not the thing that could be taught in public settings. It could not be graded for it. And I spend a great deal of time on unpacking this. I think it’s a foundational idea to understand how our politics and importantly how the Christian contribution to our politics has gotten to where it is. Importantly, I think this idea has a very different—. Sometimes we talk in Christian circles about living in a “post-Christian society” or a “negative world,” and I think these concepts have some merit, but they tend to only reinforce a sort of us/them paradigm. They tend to communicate, if not in fact at least by connotation, this idea that something has been imposed on Christians and on society. What Willard is very careful to lay out are all of the ways in which Christians themselves contributed to and have bought into the disappearance of moral knowledge.
And so this is a concept— this is the second chapter in the book. What I argue is that we need to retrieve a sense that we live in a moral universe in which moral decisions are not optional. We make moral decisions all of the time. And our politics is actually not absent of moral assertion. You could say our politics today is actually more robustly full of moral assertions than it has been at any other time this century. I think—you’ve heard me say this before, Cherie—I think relativism is not the primary concern here. I think relativism is largely dead. We now have an age of moral assertion, but we have deep insecurity that our moral assertions have any authority. And when moral assertions become mere power plays as opposed to a representation of reality, then we get in a really difficult place where almost anything can be justified.
Cherie Harder: Along those lines, one of the gifts that reliable moral knowledge gives us is that ways and means are vital, as well as ends. I mean, this is something that Dallas talked a great deal about. This is something, certainly, that Jesus talked about. And I actually remember growing up being told that faith should not be adverbial. And it should certainly be more than adverbial, but we also think it should not be less than adverbial either. And how we go about what we’re doing is actually vitally important. And I wanted to ask you about this because one of the things that you argue for and discuss, which may seem almost unrealistic, is for a return of gentleness in politics. And you worked in the White House, were one of the youngest staffers during the Obama administration. You worked on a presidential campaign. I worked in the White House for someone from a different party. Politics has never been beanbag. So, you know, as someone who’s actually been in the midst of it, in the thick of it, where there’s always incoming attacks, there’s always elbows being thrown, what does that look like? How does one embody gentleness in politics, as well as more broadly, an approach to politics that actually reflects he who we worship?
Michael Wear: Yes. So, this chapter draws on a book that Dallas wrote, The Allure of Gentleness. And this is Dallas’s book about Christian apologetics. I read it as how Christians should act and behave in public. But Dallas thought that Christian apologetics had, unfortunately, developed into a series of tactics to insulate Christians and to get the other side to shut up. It could often become a way of, a tactic of, not actually serving but of defeating, of outcompeting. Instead, Dallas thought that Christians ought to engage in apologetics as an act of loving service. And that is the exact term I use for what I think should ground Christians’ political engagement.
We need to— When we suggest that gentleness is not viable in politics or public life, that has embedded assumptions about what our responsibility is and, I actually think, even more deeply, assumptions about what God needs in order to get what he needs to get done. And so, so much of this goes to our vision of God, and then our vision of God can inform our political engagement. So with gentleness, in this chapter, I talk a great deal about anger and the esteem that we have for anger in our politics. This idea that if you aren’t angry about something, you don’t actually believe it. We need to be— if that is what we think, then gentleness is impossible. Because anger carries with it the openness to harm. And so we need to think carefully about our views of the world, what is necessary, and then think about how that applies to our political behavior.
Gentleness is not an absence of conviction. It’s also not fear of confrontation. Let me say one more thing, which is, for the average Christian, I think that we have— there’s a term in the book that I use from Eitan Hersh, who’s a political scientist at Tufts, called “political hobbyism.” And political hobbyism refers to folks who basically approach politics as a form of entertainment, as consumers. And for the average Christian— you and I worked in politics, maybe some on the call have worked in politics proper, too. I get really concerned when people who don’t have jobs in politics take on the dominant logic of political strategy in our politics today when they don’t have responsibilities in that realm. And so I think there’s a conversation for practitioners. And I think gentleness is possible for practitioners. I also just want to say to the mass of folks listening, relieve yourself of the burden of having to achieve the political outcome you desire in every conversation that you have, in every political action that you take. Your eyes should be on something else primarily than the outcome, because the outcome is not in your control. And then that’s something that you have to say to those of us who work in politics too.
But, yes, I am so excited to hear from others the reaction to this chapter on gentleness, because it goes right to the heart of our assumptions about what is necessary in order to survive and thrive in God’s world. And if we don’t believe that the world is a perfectly safe place to live so long as we’re in the kingdom, then faithfulness is going to be very difficult.
Cherie Harder: You started to respond to that by saying that, you know, so often we hear, “If you’re not angry, you must not care.” We often hear, like, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” And Dallas Willard offered so much, I think, insight on the spiritual disciplines, and, of course, all the spiritual disciplines begin with where do we place our attention? What are we focused on? And so, you know, in contrast to paying attention to that which makes us angry, I wanted to ask you about part of the last section of the book where you talk about the spiritual disciplines that can help form us for redemptive public engagement. And I wanted to ask you to talk about what those are and what they look like.
Michael Wear: Yes. I’m tempted to say more about anger, but I’m afraid we’ll just have to leave it maybe to the questions and maybe just to the reading. So this book is written, as I believe Dallas wrote all of his books, with a particular model of spiritual formation in mind. He called it “VIM”: vision, intention, means. And so what you’re referring to now is the means section. It’s important that the means come after the vision and the intentions. And we’ve talked a bit about vision and intentions, at least implicitly, in this conversation. When we’re talking about spiritual disciplines, there are several categories I talk about in the book. The first are sort of traditional spiritual disciplines and practices that I want to bring into contact with the particular kinds of public and cultural challenges that we have today. So, for instance, I believe silence and solitude are absolutely essential disciplines, given the particular challenges of this moment: increasingly pervasive political technology and media, the abundance of messages vying for our attention. Silence and solitude give us the opportunity to remember or maybe come to terms for the first time that we are more than an amalgamation of the various inputs and the various sort of statements about us that the world imposes on us. There’s actually something innate about us as a person, as a human being with a soul.
I talk about prayer, celebration, fellowship, service. What in Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas referred to as secrecy, I refer to it as “anonymous service” in the book. The study of Scripture, of course. So these are all traditional spiritual disciplines that, depending on the challenges that people are facing when it comes to politics and our public life and the way that they’re engaging, I think can be helpful. I also offer a number of 21st-century practices that are specifically responsive to some of the challenges of the day. So I write about how Christians can approach news consumption. I write about how Christians can break groupthink within the context of their local community. And then, finally, this idea of bearing one another’s burdens and the political applications, the potential political applications, of that.
Importantly, and I’ll just— and this is important not just in this context, but just for folks’ lives with Jesus. These practices are not meant to be a checklist of activity that you feel burdened by and that you feel like you need to do to be a super Christian. No, these practices are meant to be helpful in your walk with Jesus as you are taking off the old self with its practices and putting on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge of the image of its Creator. And these practices have been found throughout time to be helpful as a way to invite the Holy Spirit and to participate with Jesus in that work that he’s doing in your life.
Cherie Harder: So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And if you have not already done so, feel free to add a question to the Q&A box. We’ll be going through and picking a few of those. Our first question comes from Dean Ober, and Dean asks, “If ‘political therapeutic deism’ is an enmeshment of spirituality and politics, what are some healthy differentiating conversations within ministries and/or political spaces that we might pay attention to?”
Michael Wear: Oh, I love this question. So I think of political therapeutic deism as a way of putting politics over God. And so we can undermine political therapeutic deism and these sort of related impulses that we spend so much time talking about by creatively asserting the penultimacy of politics, the prudentiality of politics, the contingencies of politics. I think so often when we think about the contribution that Christianity has to offer to politics, sort of traditionally, the thought is “we have a bunch of right answers,” or “we have the right policy view.” And the Christian contribution is to sort of do whatever we can to advance and impose that view. I think there is certainly room—and I invite and I want Christians to bring resources to bear in informing their policy views, and we can talk more about that—but what I think in this moment is the most powerful contribution that Christians have is not telling politics what it is, but reminding our politics of what it is not. Of actually rightsizing politics in our lives and in our public life and rightsizing the moral burden that people feel as a result of politics. That’s not to remove any moral responsibility politics has. Because it’s within the range of our effective will, because it’s something that we have influence in, moral responsibility comes with it. But in an age of aversion, othering, misplaced moralization, one of the great gifts that Christians could give to our politics is reminding it what it’s not. And that’s something I try to do in the book.
Cherie Harder: Following on that, we have a question from an anonymous attendee who asked, “How do we handle oppression and injustice with gentleness?”
Michael Wear: Ah, yes. Willard believed that the Christian vocation was gentle noncooperation with evil. I think that there’s so much that could be said here, but this is one of the great gifts, not just in theory, but in the actual living out of the civil rights movement, of the nonviolent movement of civil rights. We just passed Martin Luther King Day. I love this one-page document that was created by the Montgomery Improvement Association to inform those who were participating in the Montgomery bus boycott. And you could look at that document, and to me, it is a beautiful and instructive artifact of what is possible when spiritual formation meets civic practice. And so there are all kinds of lines of guidance in that document: Be prepared to receive support from anyone. Be willing to absorb evil and not respond with evil.
Here’s what’s implicit in that question. And I don’t mean to suggest anything about the [questioner]. We can fall into the belief that in a fallen world, what is required to address injustice is just rightly-oriented injustice. Unjust means to address what we tend to think as sort of an unjust state that must be overturned. And I want to suggest that we need to think very carefully and have humility about our own ability to wield even things like anger, even things like, you know, political white lies, in a way that is not only—obviously, it’s inconsistent with the kind of people that we want to be—but I want to question the effectiveness of that. We are not going to achieve a nonviolent society through just violence with good intentions. Like, we just need to be careful about that kind of logic and have an imagination for confronting injustice in ways that are life-giving and don’t take on the tools of that which we’re seeking to oppose.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So a question from Valerie Derricks. And Valerie says, “A friend serves on Capitol Hill and describes the atmosphere that she’s in there as pure evil. In addition to gifting her your book, what would you recommend to help such people not give up on their desire to serve the disenfranchised in public life?”
Michael Wear: So I referred to this earlier. So Dallas defined kingdom as the range of your effective will. So God’s kingdom is the range of his effective will, where what he says is to be done is done. But Dallas said we all have our own sort of like little kingdoms where what we basically want to say should be done is done. Faithfulness is about placing our little kingdoms under the jurisdiction of God’s kingdom, about placing our wills under the jurisdiction of love, of the will to good. That is something that can apply, of course, in our interpersonal interactions. It’s also something that we should think about in the context of politics. This does not mean that all of our political activity will be successful in the way that our politics determines it to be successful. Dallas was very concerned about politics for several reasons, but one of them was he recognized that politics has a way of creating its own kind of reality that is not reality itself. So political decisions are not determined based on who is correct or what is true. Political decisions are determined on the basis of who wins, who’s able to get the most votes, and if we aren’t careful to keep in mind a reality that is deeper and more pervasive than politics, then we could start to think that political logic is the base logic on which our lives should run.
And so that would be some advice. But I just want to say, I know Valerie, and she’s already doing this. I tell this story in the book about Valerie. I was leading a group going through The Divine Conspiracy, and we came upon Dallas’s teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the Beatitudes. Dallas’s argument about the Beatitudes was that this is not—the blessed be’s are not “be this way.” Be poor in spirit, and then you’ll be blessed; be meek, and then you’ll be blessed. No, what Jesus was doing was teaching that the kingdom was available to all, even those who would not be well regarded in the time and context in which he lived. And so Dallas had this question. He said, “Who in your time and context would you say would be blessed in the kingdom of God, even if they aren’t favored in society?” So he would say things like those who are poorly dressed. Those who just never know what to do in social situations. Miss Valerie spoke up in this small group. She was the last person to speak. And she said, “Blessed be the squeegee boys.” And just real briefly, the squeegee boys—Miss Valerie and I both live in Baltimore—and the squeegee boys are typically teenage boys who will wait at intersections to wash off cars. And there’s a whole public campaign about squeegee boys. The mayor set up a commission. They’re derided as everything from sort of public safety threats to just people with no future. But Miss Valerie had exactly the right idea, which is, blessed are the squeegee boys in the kingdom of God. And we could be people like Miss Valerie who are able to bless those who do not know that they are blessed, who can speak to the dignity of people who are left undignified by our politics, or at least treated as though they don’t have dignity. And so this is possible at the individual level, even if it doesn’t achieve immediately the political outcomes that you might desire.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Michael Puchy, who asks, “Some couples fight unfairly, escalating the meaning of things out of proportion into a spiritual battle. Based on that parallel, what are the communication thresholds that are important indicators that we should be noticing, and what are the body politic parallels for healthy modes of de-escalation that rebuild trust?”
Michael Wear: Yeah. So this is such an encouraging question because it’s very much what I’m trying to encourage with this book, which is there is no political you. There’s just you. And the logic that we accept in our politics very often will creep into the logic that we have in our personal relationships or in the ways that we run our finances or these kinds of things. And so I love this question.
Here’s one guardrail specifically for Christians. And this is going to sound so subtle as to be a trivial, meaningless. But I’ll say it. And then I would just ask people to reflect on the state of Christian politics, and maybe think whether this might not be as small as it seems. I think if we simply made the shift from the predominant way, I think, of talking about the interaction between faith and politics, which is to say, “I’m a Christian; therefore, I support candidate A, I support policy A”—to make the switch to say, rather, “My Christian faith leads me to support candidate A, support policy A.”
Again, that might seem trivial, but here’s what it does in in my mind, and here’s what I think it communicates. It communicates that whenever we are entering into politics, into the realm of self-governance, the activity of self-governance and government, we are seeking to translate ultimate principles into the penultimate and prudential realm of politics. We are no longer in the stenography business. So we’re in the stenography business when we say, “Every human being is made in the image of God.” That’s stenography. I could stand on that with ten toes. But we want to be very careful about baptizing our political views as if they are instantiations of these ultimate principles. And if we just made the turn to make clear that we’re in the translating business in politics and not the stenography business, it would do wonders for the health of the Church. And I think it would do great things for the public’s perception of who we are, what we believe we’re doing when we participate in politics, and may even help reopen up some space for Christian contributions that our public life so desperately needs, in my view.
Cherie Harder: Time is rapidly going away, and there’s so many good questions, and just apologies to all of you in that we’re not going to be able to get to them all. But I’m actually going to combine a few questions, all of which have to do with application. And, Michael, maybe you can just pick out what you’d like to pick out and respond to. So a question from Suzanne Broadhurst, who asked, “What are the practical ways to engage or refrain from engaging with friends and family on politics with gentleness?” An anonymous attendee says that a great example of Christians in politics are William Wilberforce and MLK. “Using them as examples, how do we keep from engaging in mere hobby politics but instead seek real change?” And finally, Allan Sealinger says, “For those in Christian leadership, what do we do to respond to people who say we’re being too political when we’re sharing the teachings of Jesus about caring for the poor?” So three application-related questions, and I’ll let you respond to what’s top of mind.
Michael Wear: Yeah. Such lovely and wonderful questions that I think get to the heart of the matter. I think I could respond to all three with a with a story. I received a phone call a number of years ago from a friend. This friend is someone who is a leader in conservative politics and not just on the policy side, on the electoral side. But this person also, in addition, works on a whole range of human rights issues. And we partnered and been friends for a number of years. I received a call from this person and assumed that it was going to be, you know, “there’s an issue in such and such country, can you help?” And instead this individual said, “Michael, I was hoping that you’d be able to sit down with my daughter. She’s a junior in college, and she doesn’t understand how the candidate I’m supporting matches the values I raised her with.” And of course my friend thought that it was coherent. But she just said, “My daughter doesn’t see it.” And she said, “Michael, I’m hoping that you would spend time with my daughter. I want her to spend time with a faithful Christian who just has a different approach to politics than her parent.” And then this is the line that got me. She said, “Michael, I no longer care about the future of my daughter’s politics. I just want my daughter to start going to church with her family.”
Can we say that in our churches, in our relationships, that we would be willing to lose on politics if it meant the person that we were interacting with, that we’re having trouble with, grew closer to Jesus? Could we say that for our own lives? I think there are political conflicts that need to be sorted out. There is a time and a place for political disagreement, for stating your political convictions clearly. It’s possible to be wrong in politics. Like, this is not a— you can be wrong in politics.
Can the Church, are believers casting a vision that is not consumed by political deliberation? Can we cast a vision of hope for people’s lives, even if they don’t get the political questions right? Or are we holding on to our politics so tightly that we think, “If I don’t win this fight, if I don’t convince this person that they’re wrong and I’m right, then that is a loss that that I can’t bear.” Now look, if the uncle at the Thanksgiving table who has the bad political opinions is a sitting United States senator, then yeah, maybe the judgment about your responsibility there is different. But for so many of us, we can actually provide space for Jesus to guide our relations as opposed to sort of asking Jesus to get out of the way so that we could deal with this person as we think they need to be dealt with.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Michael. And in just a moment, I’m going to ask you for a last word to close this out. But before that, a few things to share with each of you who are watching. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. I say this every time, but we really do appreciate and enjoy reading through your thoughts. We read all of them. We try to incorporate them to make this program ever more valuable. And as a small token of our appreciation, if you do send out the feedback form, we’ll send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. There are several Readings that we would recommend that kind of help flesh out and go deeper into some of the themes that we’ve discussed today, including “Abraham Lincoln: The Spiritual Growth of a Public Man,” MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Augustine’s “City of God,” and “Politics, Morality, and Civility” by Vaclav Havel. So please fill it out. We’d love to send along a code to you for a free Reading.
In addition, tomorrow, right around noon, we’ll be sending out an email with a lightly edited video link to today’s Online Conversation, along with a bunch of additional readings and resources to help you go more deeply. So, we encourage you to share this conversation and start a conversation with others to explore some of the questions that have been raised with your friends and family. In addition, we would love to invite each of you watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people that help advance and make the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought for the common good possible. In addition to furthering the mission and being part of that community, there’s a number of advantages and benefits, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of reading recommendations, and for all of you watching who join or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you, as a special benefit, a signed copy of Michael Wear’s new book, The Spirit of Our Politics. So hope you will join the Trinity Forum Society. We would love to welcome you into the community.
In addition, if you are interested in sponsoring an upcoming Online Conversation, please let us know. We would love to talk with you. I’d also like to just inform all of you about a few exciting events that are coming up. If you are in the DC area on February 8th, we’ll be hosting Michael Wear live and in person to talk about his book. So please join us for that reception in our offices on February 8th. In addition, for our Online Conversations, our next one will be on February 2nd with Yale professor Miroslav Volf on “Pursuing a Life Worth Living.” Later next month, we’ll be hosting Tim Alberta, the author of “The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory,” on February 23rd. And then after that, we’ll be hosting Amy Julia Becker on “Perfectly Human: Why Understanding Disability Matters to All of Us.”
Other upcoming Online Conversations will feature John Mark Comer, Philip Yancey, John Inazu, Elizabeth Oldfield, many others. And you can access the information of all of that on our website at TFF.org, as well as our YouTube page. So we hope that you will join us for a new year of programing.
Finally, as promised, Michael, the last word is yours.
Michael Wear: Yeah, well, first Trinity Forum is doing such a wonderful work, and Cherie is just such a joy to partner with you always. And I would encourage folks to engage with the work that Trinity Forum is doing beyond this conversation, if you haven’t already.
I would love for folks to read this book. There’s a chapter in the book specifically addressed to pastors and parents who I think are facing unique and special burdens when it comes to faith, moral knowledge formation, and our politics. And I’ve been so encouraged to hear already from pastors and parents who have been reading through this book. If you would like to read through The Spirit of Our Politics in community, at the center for Christianity and Public Life we’ve created a free discussion guide that you can access at CCPublicLife.org. And I would love to have you engage with the book in that way.
What I’d love to do is close with a prayer. And it’s a prayer Dallas Willard wrote, his rendition of the Lord’s Prayer that I just love and has meant a great deal to me. And so I’ll close in that way.
Dear father, always near us, may your name be treasured and loved. May your rule be completed in us. May your will be done here on earth in just the way it is done in heaven. Give us today the things we need today, and forgive us our sins and impositions on you as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us. Please don’t put us through trials, but deliver us from everything bad because you are the one in charge and you have all the power, and the glory too is all yours forever, which is just the way we want it.
And Dallas would often end that prayer saying whoopee! And so I’ll say whoopee. And thank you for hosting this, Cherie. Always lovely to talk with you. And thanks to those who joined us.
Cherie Harder: Great to talk with you as well, Michael. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.