Society & Politics

LECTURE SERIES: Christianity and Politics


Marketplace Institute

Introduction to the Series

This series explores how we are to engage as Christians with the world of politics from a theological, historical, and practical perspective. We are all indirectly influenced by governments, which decide on laws that aim to create a healthy society, and in turn require that we follow these laws. They determine how to tax us and how to spend that money. They form and maintain relationships with nations around the world, allowing us to travel and work either more or less easily. It is often easy to find faults in governments and to critique them, forgetting the benefits that occur due to their work.

The series comprises five lectures:

  1. Thoughts on Christian Involvement in Politics
  2. Managing the Interface Between Faith and Politics
  3. Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler
  4. How Religion Went Bad: Christianity in an Age of Heresy
  5. Bringing Faith to Bear on the Public Issues of Our Time

The first two lectures establish a theological foundation for Christian political engagement. The speakers address why we should be involved in politics, arguing that God is interested in governing and politics, along with every other facet of life. As such, God calls us to be involved in politics as part of the wider cultural mandate.

The third lecture builds on this foundation by looking at how the theology has been lived out in history, offering two historical examples of Christians who positively affected the world through politics. The women who are studied in these examples saw issues needing to be addressed, and, driven by their piety, used their limited political access to change society.

The fourth lecture shifts focus to our current era by looking at the North American political climate and the movements that created it, providing us with a better understanding of the type of political context in which Christians find themselves today. The final lecture helps Christians in all walks of life see what thoughtful engagement in the political world looks like and shows them how to participate. Much like the widespread influence of government in our lives, we are able to participate in a variety of ways.

Living in a world that is largely secular in the public sphere does not mean that Christians should not seek to influence politics. Instead, we ought to think critically and prayerfully about how we might be involved in the political sphere. Through these lectures we hope that you are encouraged to get involved and think in new ways about politics where you are.

Lecture 1: Thoughts on Christian Involvement in Politics

By James K.A. Smith

In this interview with the Marketplace Institute, James K.A. Smith offers a measured approach to politics. Christian political engagement is not all-consuming, calling for us to submerge our lives completely in politics while forgetting our commitments to Christ. Nor is it all-denying, asking us to completely withdraw from political engagement. This stance comes from a realization that the public, secular sphere is never value neutral. In such an environment Christians can be advocates for human flourishing. As a Christian philosopher, Smith is able to critique our post-modern context and offer insight into where we as Christians might offer unique input. Please note that each musical interlude starts an answer to a question from the list below.

Overview of the Lecture

  • Should Christians be engaged in politics? We need to learn how to be concerned for the common good without retreating into a holy enclave, while also acknowledging the tension between engagement with the political and putting too much emphasis on the political.
  • The public sphere: Is it purely secular? Because the public sphere is pluralist it can’t be neutral, which means that there are interesting opportunities for Christians to be present in the public sphere.
  • Are politics only federal or presidential?There is a concrete significance to politics which lies outside of the federal realm, such as the municipal and provincial. A politic of the local allows us to think in terms of the realities of the gospel, remembering that the incarnation was both a local and global event.
  • What is the city of God?Through the language of “the City of God,” St. Augustine is trying to communicate two things to Christians: 1) The need to stop over-identifying the City of God with the earthly empires; and 2) The need to seek the welfare of the city, and be an influence for the good. God wants a vision of shalom and flourishing for every sphere of creation.
  • How can we reframe Faith and Politics? We need to move beyond asking: how does Christianity relate to politics? Instead, we should ask: how should Christians think about politics? This is a sub-question of: how do we live as resident aliens in the earthy city?

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with Smith when he suggests that the public sphere is not a space of value neutral ideas? What voices do you hear in the public sphere?
  2. Smith states that Christians should avoid withdrawing from public life. In what spaces do you see opportunities for Christians to speak?
  3. What would you consider as shalom and flourishing in your own life?
  4. How might we, as Christians, be an influence for good in our cities and neighborhoods? In what ways are we already doing this well?

Additional Resources

Lecture 2: Managing the Interface Between Faith and Politics

By Preston Manning

In this second theology segment, Preston Manning talks about the personal dimension of political engagement, and how each of us might prepare ourselves to become politically involved. To this end, Manning draws upon his nine-year tenure as an MP in the Canadian House of Commons, during which he founded two political parties and served as the leader of the official opposition.

Manning encourages citizens to be both politically involved and politically informed. As Christians we are able to be light to the world in each area of society, including politics. To have an impact it is important that we live well, reflecting the Christian ethic. In particular, Manning emphasizes the importance of pursing a growing relationship with God. Upon this basis, we can then move into our professional lives. This holistic approach encourages us to reflect more upon who God is calling us to be, rather than what we are doing. In addition, Manning strongly affirms the importance of knowing the political culture of one's particular context when moving into political activity.

Overview of the Lecture

  • To live at the interface of faith and politics we need knowledge of God, of ourselves, and of our political culture.
  • God calls people to be politically involved. The primary call from God, however, is for us to be a certain kind of person, rather than to do a certain thing, as we see in Ephesians 4-5.
  • As representatives of God in the political sphere one needs to learn how to govern herself before she seeks to govern others.
  • We also need to know our political culture, including the dangers that exist in this culture. In each situation there is a nuance of the political culture; as such we need to know how and when to get involved. The political culture includes the spiritual heritage of one's political party. By using this knowledge one can build upon what exists and avoid past mistakes.

Discussion Questions

  1. Manning encourages us to spend more time focused on who we are, rather than on what we are doing. As you look at Ephesians 4-5, are there any particular exhortations that are applicable for you?
  2. Which spiritual practices would be personally helpful for you in order to move from doing to being? Are there some practices that are working well in your life currently? (a few spiritual practices: prayer, reading scripture, lectio-divina, practicing Sabbath, feasting and fasting, gardening, simplicity, pilgrimage, personal reflection, generosity)
  3. How does spiritual practice work in the midst of a busy life? How does this encourage life as opposed to adding more things to your "to do" list?

Additional Resources

Lecture 3: Florence Nightingale and Josephine Butler

By Sarah C. Williams

This session provides as case studies two politically engaged women from the nineteenth century. While both were engaged in political activity, neither was an elected politician. Their lives were marked by a deep religious commitment that informed their action.

Florence Nightingale is best known for her work as a nurse, the calling to which she devoted her life. She was a volunteer in the Crimean War, during which she providing medical care for soldiers. Her life was spent dedicated to training women in the nursing profession. As you listen, think about how Nightingale was able to think politically when she saw change to be necessary.

Josephine Butler spent twenty years lobbying the British government. Most of her lobbying was against British legislation created in an attempt to drastically decrease venereal disease among soldiers. It allowed for any woman suspected of prostitution to be medically examined, which placed full responsibility for the spread of venereal disease with women. Butler worked tirelessly to have the legislation reversed. At a more local level, she also welcomed prostitutes into her family home.

This audio is a partial lecture originally from the class “Mapping Gender” taught by Sarah Williams.

Overview of the Lecture

  • Florence Nightingale's work began with an encounter with God, during which "God spoke to me and called me to his service."
  • Nightingale worked during the Crimean War in 1853, taking with her 38 friends who were nurses, with whom she worked to clean up the hospitals.
  • There was, however, a cost to her work in the form of depression and chronic pain throughout her life.
  • Josephine Butler worked tirelessly in a 20 year campaign against The Contagious Diseases Act of 1864, created to eliminate venereal disease. This legislation allowed women suspected of prostitution to be examined for venereal diseases and subsequently confined.
  • Similar to Nightingale, Butler had a strong sense of the call of God to be involved in this work. She likewise experienced a high personal cost, but through her work she changed the political climate for women.

Discussion Questions

  1. Butler was apparently motivated by the tragic death of her daughter to act on behalf of all women, and through her work she experienced significant persecution. What other inspirational examples have you seen? What was the cost borne of this work done for God?
  2. In turning down marriage proposals and publicly discussing sexual ethics, both Nightingale and Butler respectively acted from a deep spiritual commitment in ways contrary to what society saw as proper. Are there societal norms that may need to be challenged for the sake of addressing issues in society?

Additional Resources

  • Boyd, Nancy. Three Victorian Women Who Changed Their World: Josephine Butler, Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
  • Jordan, Jane. Josephine Butler. London: John Murray, 2001.
  • Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993.

Lecture 4: How Religion Went Bad: Christianity in an Age of Heresy

By Ross Douthat

With this lecture we move from historical case studies to the current context of political life in North America. In the lecture Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, speaks about how participation in religious institutions has waned in North America since 1945, while religious yearnings have not. In an American context, Douthat argues, this religious energy has been poured into politics, but at the same time points out the Christian roots that still undergird Western nations. And so, through the process of secularization we are neither post-Christian, nor are we deeply Christian.

Through the forces of secularization, Christians have reshaped their values towards an end of comfort. We cut away the hard parts—the asceticism, the call to service—and move towards a religion that looks just as comfortable as living situations. As a response, Douthat calls Christians to give their primary allegiance to God, rather than to a political party. He suggests that there is a limited amount of change that can be affected through politics, yet he holds that culture in a broader sense has a power that is almost limitless. He ends by noting that history is marked by saints and artists who have changed the world, and so he closes by boldly asserting that only sanctity can change the world.

This lecture was given at the Faith and Politics in a Fractured World weekend conference in 2012.

Overview of the Lecture

  • Over the past 50 years there has been a decline in religious institutions. A snapshot of 1957 may provide a model for serious Christian engagement in the present context.
  • Douthat gives four reasons for the decline: 1) Political polarization; 2) The sexual revolution; 3) Growing disparities in wealth; and 4) Globalization.
  • In our current context we are faced with a world influenced by the idea of God, and a world deeply fascinated with Jesus. What America is experiencing is neither a genuine Christian society, nor a post-Christian society.
  • Living in an "age of heresy" means there is much opportunity for Christian witness in the political sphere.
  • Before we become too enmeshed in the political world, however, we should remember that culture trumps politics. What we need today are saints and artists, offering public demonstrations of holiness.

Discussion Questions

  1. Douthat speaks into the American context in this lecture. If you are in this context, do you agree with his assessment? If you are in a different context, what are the characteristics of your political climate? Are they similar to those Douthat describes?
  2. At the end of his talk, Douthat states that one major problem is that we have too few saints and artists. How do you think holiness and art can make a valuable contribution to Christian witness within a political context?

Additional Resources

Lecture 5: Bringing Faith to Bear on the Public Issues of Our Time

By Preston Manning

In this final lecture of the series, Preston Manning challenges us to think about how Christians might practically take action in politics. This lecture suggests ways in which our voices may be heard more effectively. The suggestions Manning gives are equally applicable to the elected and unelected alike.

Manning offers three areas of action that can be addressed uniquely by Christians: euthanasia, the environment, and reconciliation. He emphasizes, though, that political work must originate in a life lived pursuing God. But underlying this action he emphasizes the importance of political work coming out of a life pursuing God.

Overview of the Lecture

  • If we are to be involved in a political conversation, we need to legitimate our contribution by appealing to the democratic base and to the authority of learned people.
  • There is opportunity and need for a Christian voice on specific issues, including:
      • Euthanasia, but we need to choose an entry point into the debate wisely and make sure to identify with the suffering of those involved;
      • Environmental issues, recognising the need to practice environmental stewardship and to curb consumerism within the Christian community;
      • Reconciliation of conflicting interests, bringing a different model to conflict and playing the role of mediator in the public square.
  • For all of this to happen we need to pay attention to our personal conduct, remembering the call of Matthew 10:16 to "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves"; we need to look to the examples of Jesus, who shows us how to act with wisdom and grace; and we need to spend time learning and practicing spiritual disciplines.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the areas which naturally excite you, in which you would want to participate politically?
  2. Are you part of a politically minded community? How could you periodically reconnect to talk about the challenges and opportunities for a Christian in your area?
  3. Manning suggests that entering into an area with compassion will give us much more credibility than if we jump in with our solution. How are you exercising compassion in your area?
  4. What are ways that you could become politically active or politically minded?

Additional Resources

Source: Marketplace Institute

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