Dr. Vincent Bacote Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College (IL). He is the author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life. He lives in Glen Ellyn, IL with his wife and two daughters.
KW: Why do you think Christians in America feel they need permission to engage the public square in their faith?
VB: It is hard to say precisely how many Christians wonder whether we have permission to engage public life, but my sense is that there is a significant number of believers who have uncertainty. There is a very good reason to wonder why permission might be needed: we are in a broken and fallen world and find warnings in Scripture about having our priorities out of order, of being worldly and thus opposed to God. If we take discipleship seriously, we have to carefully consider what God wants us to do in the mission he has given us. I think a key element here is to make sure we understand the warnings about being worldly, which if we look closely are not about whether we should be involved in public life but how we are to be involved. If our engagement emerges from fidelity to God instead of one of the many idolatrous alternatives, then we find that permission has always been there for us.
KW: Why is it important that we learn how to faithfully engage the public square as part of our discipleship?
VB: To be a disciple is to be properly human; the path of discipleship is a re-humanization process where we (hopefully) participate in God’s world in a more winsome fashion. This proper human participation includes our responsiveness to what I call “The First Great Commission”, also called the creation mandate or cultural mandate. This first commission calls us to seek the flourishing of the created order, which includes politics, law, medicine, education and others ways that we steward the world. One of the best ways that Christians live as a witness to the kingdom of God is through lives of faithfulness that not only show we are having our character transformed but also actions in the public domain that reveal our ongoing transformation into the kinds of humans God wants in the world. Put differently, this is the pursuit of Christlikeness; He was the perfect human and our transformation process has our Lord as the standard. Though our transformation does not occur without missteps and bumps in the road, we should eagerly seek to grow in our humanness in private and public life. Imagine this scenario: what if the reputation of Christians was one where people said with wonderful astonishment “they really do act quite human!”
KW: Is there a good first step you can recommend if someone wants to engage in this way more?
VB: I think it is best to look around where you are and consider all of the different institutions and relationships you have and then consider how you might respond to this First Great Commission. It doesn’t have to mean running for office or beginning to volunteer with the local office of a political party. In some cases step one may be as simple as going to the polls to vote when elections come around or attending meetings of the school board or local government. Here’s something else to try: have a dinner or dessert gathering with some friends and discuss your concerns about what is going on in the world and brainstorm about ways to get involved. There is no cookie cutter approach; the first thing is to raise one’s antenna and go from there. For me, one avenue has been to participate on the board of the Center for Public Justice, a wonderful nonpartisan organization that aims to equip citizens and help shape policy.
KW: What have you learned personally as you’ve engaged in this way? How has it shaped your faith?
VB: Two highlights among the things I have learned: first, even when Christians have disagreements about the theological basis for our public engagement and differences in priorities, most of the time this does not mean that there is no constructive conversation to be had or important questions to consider. While I have my differences with views such Luther’s Two Kingdoms or versions of Anabaptist alternative community, I have come to see that these and other perspectives help me to be aware of the potential pitfalls that may exist in my view and that there are dimensions of public witness expressed by others that are worthy of attention and admiration. Second, in the realm of public engagement in general and politics in particular, it is important to have a long range vision, perhaps even as long as the 500 year vision that I have heard from my friend Makoto Fujimura. This is important because many Bible-believing Christians treat politics as a form of crisis management instead of as an often slow process that leads to forms of public policy. None of this means that we should not address moments of crisis, but that we should see crises as one part of bigger picture instead of the entirety.
KW: Are there dangers to political engagement? If so, how do we identify and address them?
VB: There are dangers to any path we take, and political engagement is one area where it can be easy to confuse political aspirations with priorities of the kingdom. While we should strive to have political engagement that reflects and represents God’s kingdom, our vision is far too opaque to suggest that our prescriptions for public life are the precise expression of God’s kingdom at any moment. Beyond this, a major hazard is that political allegiances can become so intense that we forget that those who are not “our people” are also humans created in God’s image. Even if others regard us an enemies because of our political stances, we never have an excuse for hating or dehumanizing them. These are a couple of hazards, though certainly there are many others (like the seduction of power, distorted pursuit of influence, etc.).
KW: What encouragement can you give us to persevere as we pursue the common good?
VB: One guarantee: engagement in life, public or private, will break your heart at some point. We need not look hard or long to be confronted with realities that would make us cry out “How long, O Lord!” Nevertheless, the inevitable disappointments are not cause for getting out of the game. Instead, this is one domain where we must learn to practice lament (and both Todd Billings and Soong Chan Rah are helping us with their books on this topic) and be honest with God about our heartbreak, frustration and distress, and then continue to discern ways to be faithful to the First Great Commission. Some of us may truly regard public engagement as a cross-bearing experience, but whether the cross seems heavy or light we move forward as hopeful people obedient to God and hopeful of the day when all is set right.
KW: Why do you believe we are in a time of great opportunity?
VB: Though some now convey a tale of defeat in the culture wars and others are confounded as to what we should do, I think now is a great time for Christians in places like the United States to stop, take a breath, and consider how the present moment is a time for us to remember that our aim is not political victories of our own making but the pursuit of diverse ways to be faithful to God’s first command to seek the flourishing of His world. It is also a great time to consider the many ways our beliefs connect to our life beyond the Sunday worship service. We can ask “what is a post-benediction expression of Christian faith?” and consider how doctrines like our view of Jesus, the church, and eschatology (among others) have important implications for aspects of life we may not typically regard as spiritual. However difficult this time may be for Christians, we should remember that this is not the first time the faith has been in tension with other forces in society and that there may be opportunity for living out a Christian witness that has more range and depth than we imagined.