Christians and partisanship

Byron Smith explains why he is a Christian who is neither 'left nor right'

I recently mentioned in passing on my blog, that I was a Christian “who was neither left nor right”.

As a result, a friend wrote to me expressing concern that I was perhaps being disingenuous about my loyalties considering various experiences and conversations we'd shared in which I'd been critical of one “side” of Australian politics and supportive of the other. My friend encouraged me to be upfront about where I am coming from politically and I thought this was good advice. Isolated comments taken out of context can give the wrong impression.

When I said that I was a Christian who was neither left nor right, I meant it. I didn't mean that I have no political opinions or am apolitical, but that I generally try to be non-partisan for what I believe are good theological reasons.

As a Christian believer, my political allegiance is, ultimately, to Jesus alone. Christians believe that he has received all authority in heaven and on earth from the Father and so all political authorities that remain in this present age have been put on notice. What authority they have is derivative from his and is strictly temporary. Their jurisdiction is similarly limited. And Christians may not place in them anything other than small and provisional hopes, nor expect of them anything other than partial victories and defeats in a world marred by sin, and indeed should expect them sometimes to resemble the powers and principalities arranged against God. So any identification by a Christian with a political cause will be under these caveats.

Neither right nor left

I reject being straightforwardly labelled as “left” or “right” for two reasons, one philosophical and one theological. First, I don't think that the spectrums of left/right or conservative/progressive are particularly useful conceptual tools for discussing a political field that has more than one dimension. At best they are a commonly-accepted shorthand, but they often obscure as much as they reveal. The two-party system that dominates politics in Australia, the US and the UK (the three arenas with which I am most familiar) generally simplifies all issues to two positions. Sometimes these two positions are actually very close to one another, but this is hidden by constant focus on their slight distinctions. This represents a (perhaps partially inevitable) dumbing down of political discourse and debate and is not helped by mainstream media sources that are more interested in profit than accuracy or nuance.

But more importantly, speaking theologically and ethically, none of the parties of which I'm aware manifestly represents the cause of the Christian gospel to which I am committed. Each holds positions and priorities that as a Christian I find disappointing, disturbing or repulsive.

Furthermore, neither the agenda of the “left” nor the “right” can be entirely adopted or entirely demonised by thoughtful believers. Both contain worthwhile attempts to defend aspects of the good creation. In a world of complex goods, there will rarely be policies that are unambiguous expressions of justice, truth and the common good. By the same token, the parasitic nature of evil means that even the worst policies will lay claim to some good thing, even if, in seeking to defend it, they trample other (and perhaps more important) goods. When the complexity of the moral and political field is combined with human sinfulness and the impossibility of any leader (other than Jesus) being the Messiah, then no party or “side” can claim the obvious, exclusive, permanent or total commitment of Christians.

Consequently, voting is only ever possible while holding one's nose. I've rarely voted with much confidence and never without some degree of regret, often quite deep. And remember, voting is only the tip of the iceberg when considering what makes for a healthy political authority. But if and when you do vote, it ought to be done thoughtfully and out of concern for neighbour.

Politics and love

Indeed, all Christian political activity (which may begin with voting, but is not at all limited to it) is a response to the royal law of love—love for God and neighbour. This is also what prevents political apathy or disengagement, or a total retreat into cynicism. To write off the political authorities as irrelevant, uselessly corrupt or ubiquitously anti-Christ frequently means to abandon one's neighbour to the strongest or sneakiest bully. Of course, political engagement is neither the start nor the end of the love command, and it is a task that falls on the church community as a body, in which different members may play different roles. It is not the case that every member needs to be equally well informed or passionate about every political matter.

A significant part of Christian political responsibility will be warning political authorities when they are overstepping their jurisdiction, or when they are neglecting to protect the vulnerable and uphold justice. And so part of this task is unavoidably critical. But it is also important to seek ways forward, to offer creative suggestions, to pursue the best that it is currently possible to achieve, to engage in the often messy and always imperfectible pursuit of justice. And so it may be the case that some Christians will be called into seeking elected office, into partial and provisional loyalty to a party or cause for the sake of the common good. Being a Christian ruler is not necessarily oxymoronic.

My recent political activity

On my blog I have made positive comments about a variety of political parties and individuals and not all on one “side”. I have supported particular campaigns by various groups who in some cases identify as either “progressive” or “conservative”, but this doesn't mean I endorse everything they do.

I don't think that I have ever campaigned on my blog for a particular party or individual, but even if I have (or do so in future), this would represent a provisional and highly fallible position based on my evaluation of current needs and opportunities.

I am not claiming to be a swinging voter (though I have voted for various parties at various times) nor to be a centrist (though, like the “left” and “right”, it has some good points). I am not saying that I have no preferences or sit on the fence.

At different times I have written to MPs, councillors, government and shadow ministers and prime ministers of many parties (in a number of countries) seeking to put forward particular policies, offer praise and humbly present criticism. Always I have promised to pray for them and I try to keep that promise.

At times I have expressed frustration at how common it is in some circles to assume that Christian discipleship entails partisan political conservatism (though I am just as frustrated by the opposite assumption, it is simply a little less prominent at this point in history). I have argued against the idea that most issues have a single and obvious Christian position; I think that it is possible for biblical Christians of goodwill and honesty to disagree on the policies that will best uphold and pursue justice. I reject the assumption that only certain issues are “Christian”, or that there are a small range of issues (generally to do with sexuality) on which Christians ought primarily or exclusively to base their voting and other political activity. And I strongly believe there are some issues (such as ecology) that Christians have generally not paid enough attention to.

Political engagement is not the centre of my life, but I find it unavoidable. That’s because I believe in a God who calls me all into full engagement with his world – to love him and to seek the good of my neighbour, in whatever way I can best do that.

Byron Smith is a CPX fellow and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian Ethics at the University of Edinburgh.