Not Progressive, Not Conservative, But Christian
September 28, 2023
by Amy Givler, MD
Whenever I hear the word “polarization,” I can’t help but think of cell division. Specifically? Anaphase, which perhaps you remember from high school biology. All the organelles have been doubled and are bunched at the edges—in moments it will split down the middle and become two cells.
Anaphase is polarized. All those organelles are squinching themselves on one side of the cell or the other. It’s as if they can’t get far enough away from the other pole.
Sound familiar? Just like a certain current political landscape, perhaps?
The United States doesn’t seem very “united” right now. Progressives are getting more progressive. Conservatives are getting more conservative. What’s a thoughtful Christian to do?
I care about this issue because I grew up in a politically-focused family. Let’s just say my parents’ enthusiasm for Republican presidential candidates stretches back to Goldwater. Whether it was ever prudent, as a thoughtful Christian, to vote for a candidate based on party-affiliation alone, is not my current concern. However, what I am passionate about is for thoughtful Christians, from this time onward, to be thoughtful.
Both progressives and conservatives see the world as broken, but their suggestions for how to heal the world diverge profoundly. Progressives tend to see the government’s role as serving the needs of individuals, and laws should lessen poverty, inequality and discrimination. If an institution isn’t working toward those goals, it should be changed or torn up by the roots. Conservatives tend to want the government to intrude only minimally into the lives of its citizens. Institutions are the way they are for a reason, and any modifications should be done with caution.
Thoughtful Christians rightly cringe when progressives toss out Scripture because it doesn’t fit their political goals, and likewise when conservatives focus on their own economic benefit to the neglect the needs of the poor. Followers of Christ tend to be too progressive for conservatives and too conservative for progressives. (With kudos to The Church Politics Podcast for this crystallization of the dilemma.)
Current CMDA President Dr. George Gonzales, writing in CMDA’s flagship magazine, describes the problem:
“During the COVID pandemic and after the election of President Biden, I was shocked by how Christians were being divided by opinions, theories or politics. Each side attempting to ‘cancel’ the other; that is, they were unwilling to have civil dialogue and consider the feelings and opinions of the others. Consequently, such division led to even questioning a person’s salvation… One of the devil’s greatest schemes is to bring division in the body of believers. As the flock is scattered apart, the wolf culls and devours his prey.”
America’s politics is looking more and more polarized, but followers of Christ should always be able to have respectful conversations with other followers of Christ. We have all been adopted into one family.
And by family, I mean a loving family. With the country becoming polarized, families are finding themselves with members on “opposite” poles. People firmly aligned with one pole or the other tend to see issues—even complex ones—as easy to summarize and easy to judge. And so: “This issue on our pole is ‘of the Lord’ and we support it 100 percent,” but “That issue on their pole is ‘of the devil’ and will destroy Western civilization as we know it.”
Polarization within a family, whether it is a biological family or the family of God, damages relationships. It may look like being “unfriended” on social media, being “ghosted” when texting or calling, or enduring disrespect, insults or even outright hatred. If Christians are polarizing in one direction but their church is polarizing in the other, they may leave the church or even question their faith.
Polarization among Christians ought not to be.
How does polarization happen, and why is it getting worse? A classic paper compiling many studies done by social scientists was published in 1999. Titled, “The Law of Group Polarization,” it shows that when people of like mind gather for discussion, they tend to “move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendency.” That is, discussion group members tend toward agreeing with the member who has the most extreme views, especially if that person is highly confident and unwilling to hear other views.
Before social media, being part of a discussion group generally meant various views were represented. Now, though, the algorithms of social media tend to draw people inexorably toward one pole or the other. So, increasingly, people aren’t hearing any message other than that of the “extreme” pole.
People writing on the internet, whether it is on social media, a blog or a major news site, are being journalists. We are all journalists these days, because we put out information in a public space for public consumption. And so we must all hold to the tenets of journalism, which include an obligation to present the truth. We need to verify information before we pass it on, and we should be transparent about our sources.
That is not to say we won’t be biased in some way. All humans have a bias. Whether it is me with my modest following, or the most popular blogger on the planet—and everyone in between—in our writing we must be fair to all sides of an issue. As Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (ESV). Let’s none of us be fools.
We have a name for societies where only one narrow understanding of reality is permitted. We call them “totalitarian,” and they are led by a demagogue. The top priority of any successful demagogue is to control the flow of knowledge. The media quickly (and with force) comes under the regime’s control. Contrary ideas are suppressed. Discussion is blocked.
We are not a totalitarian society, but we are fast creating an environment that enables it to be one.
Combatting polarization means embracing civic pluralism. That is, we acknowledge we live in a society with people who believe differently than we do. We allow others to share ideas we think are wrong. By spending time with them, listening to them and trying to understand their reasoning, we place ourselves in a position where we might have influence in their lives and can point them to the truth. And, perhaps, our own perception of the truth needs a little tweaking to be better in line with reality. If we stay within an “echo chamber,” our thoughts will never be challenged.
If I am in a position of power, I may be able to change people’s behavior through compulsion, but that is authoritarianism. Far better to seek to change people’s minds through persuasion. And, of course, as a Christian my highest interpersonal goal is not politics at all, but to persuade people to look at the claims of Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to do the ultimate persuading.
Justin Gibony and Chris Butler, who founded The And Campaign and co-host The Church Politics Podcast, have repeatedly warned Christians to be cautious about aligning strongly with one political party. Biblical unity, they have said, isn’t a political position. They emphasize sticking to “gospel issues” and showing compassion to those who disagree. We care about social justice because Jesus cared about social justice, but we need the moral order that permeates the Bible. The moral order gives social justice an underpinning—it allows it to exist.
As Christians, we are not going to “fit” in any political party, or within either “pole,” for that matter. Non-biblical elements are present in any institution. Our tendency is to be repelled by the flaws in one “pole” and then fling ourselves to the opposite pole. C.S. Lewis wrote on this in Mere Christianity:
“(The devil) always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.”
For what is the Christian message? Unlike every other religion, Christianity does not require obedience as the price I must pay to be acceptable to God. I am accepted by God because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Because of this great gift, I seek to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. My goal is not popularity or fame or riches. I want to be faithful to God and to His Word, no matter where that takes me.
My identity—who I am at my core—is defined by Christ. So I don’t label myself at a core level with anything but Christ. The greatness of Jesus came from His emptying Himself of human power. He was a servant, meek and humble. He focused on lifting up the oppressed and the marginalized. When asked who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called a child to Him and told them, “…unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4, ESV).
Followers of Jesus (collectively, “the church”) have always been counter-cultural, and they always will be so. Political issues don’t bind people’s hearts together. A lot of political activism is centered on fear, but the church is centered on love. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV).
Christians gather at local churches knowing the other members will have various political views—and various views on a host of other things, for that matter! Nevertheless, we gather knowing we have a shared passion of love for Jesus. Over time we invest in each other’s lives, and we grow to love each other.
At first glance, I would not choose many of my fellow church members as friends, but to be part of community means to be intentional. It means to sacrifice some of my convenience for the sake of others. And I care about those outside my church also. The good news of the gospel compels me to want to share it with others. Nobody has yet said, “Those Christians were so nasty to me that I decided to follow their Jesus.” No, our pointing to Jesus is done with love.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35, ESV).
John Perkins, a minister and Civil Rights leader, was reflecting on this verse when he said that our love is our witness: “Love is the final fight.”
The people in the world who don’t know Jesus are yearning for a sense of purpose and meaning. For many of them, political activism is a substitute for religion. But it is a poor, poor replacement for the fullness of living found in following Christ.
Karen Swallow Prior closes her masterful book on The Evangelical Imagination with:
“To be…in Christ is to be filled with a love not only powerful enough to move the sun and stars but powerful enough to love that person we would otherwise despise. It is to love the kingdom of God more than the kingdoms of this world. It is to count all human empires as dirt, all our petty platforms and performances as dung.”
Our focus as Christians is not on exercising power. Our focus is following Jesus in the path of forgiveness, suffering and sacrifice. Our fellow humans are our neighbors, each one made in the image of God, each one hungering for the love that Jesus alone can give. How can a thoughtful Christian navigate our polarized political landscape? The words of Micah 6:8 describe our duty. It couldn’t be clearer:
“He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (ESV).