This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.
I often wonder if it’s possible to have productive dialogue across political disagreements. That might seem like a dramatic statement, but before you disagree with my framing, let me ask this: When was the last time you really had a conversation with someone who disagreed with you?
My favorite part of being an opinion editor is that I regularly encounter opinions that challenge my own perspective. The best challenges are offered via a face-to-face conversation where both parties are attempting to learn from one another while avoiding the pitfall of trying to prove their opinion is right. I was lucky enough to have one of these conversations recently with Michael Wear, the founder, president, and CEO of the Center for Christianity and Public Life and author ofThe Spirit of Our Politics, out today.
Wear’s book makes the argument that for Christians to engage in politics responsibly and approach political conversations openly, they must focus on spiritual formation, discipleship, and centering Christ in all that they do. Politics “shapes us spiritually,” Wear writes in the book. And he hopes Christians will place their political action under the authority of Christian discipleship.
In our conversation, we discussed the nature of change in moral and political circumstances, partisanship, and more. We had our share of disagreement. For my part, I’m convinced that in order for our politics or conversations about politics to change, we need to imagine something outside of capitalism, but Michael is convinced we can’t sustain political change without reshaping the kind of people we are.
Wear and I do have two major areas of alignment: Christians should be politically engaged, and our current political climate in the U.S. does not foster a spirit of open conversation. I enjoyed my conversation with Wear and am grateful for people like him who are willing to engage in good faith, be challenged by different perspectives, and reimagine Christian political engagement. Hopefully, conversations like ours can help inspire others to talk to people with whom they disagree.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
This book is my best attempt at a constructive work, bringing together insights regarding spiritual formation and the practical realities of our politics and public life. I think we have a politics that can be too technocratic, too enamored with its own solutions. And there are certain streams of spiritual formation which I think have marginalized spiritual formation to “what you do when you have time to go on retreat.” Both of those visions are limited and don’t capture the purpose and value and reality of either.
This book contends that spiritual formation is central to civic renewal. And in some ways, more importantly, that spiritual formation is about what life with Jesus is about. This book is very openly and directly my application of Dallas Willard’s ideas to public life.
I read Willard’s work during my first year as a staffer in the White House and it was like a second spiritual awakening for me. The deeper I went into it, the more I began to see the public implications for the work he was doing.
Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. He was chair of that department. So, he wasn’t teaching within a Christian institution, but he was constantly teaching at Christian institutions. He was a Christian public figure.
I don’t focus on him in this book because he was perfect, [but] at a time when many young people and others have come to expect another shoe to drop with Christian leaders, Willard is someone who lived with integrity and didn’t have a scandal. You talk to people who knew him and were close to him, and he was someone who was putting on the character of Christ, and that was evident in his words and the work he did, how he interacted with people.
What I want to do with this book is provide a way of thinking and talking about politics — a vernacular for politics — that is empowering for the church and Christians. I think such a big reason for the sense of embattlement that certain Christians feel — a desire to not engage in politics — is because it’s toxic. We have this sense of politics in which if we’re going to engage, we need to take on the logic and the vernacular of cable news.
This book isn’t saying that if you know the Bible, you know everything you need to know in our political life. What I am saying, though, is that Christians have unique resources that hold up in public life. And that the kind of people we are has much to do with the kind of public life and politics that we have. I want Christians to have some confidence in that, as opposed to overconfidence in the rightness of their political positions.
If I’m understanding what you’re saying, you’re hoping that this reconstructs or reframes some of the political conversations, particularly as it pertains to Christians.
Yeah. Look, I think that what has been made clear is that keeping politics outside of the four walls of the church is not a possibility in this culture. Politics touches the lives of the people in the church and in the communities in which churches are based. And then, of course, you have a toxic political culture that shapes and forms the kind of people we are in all of life. Treating politics as this one area of life that is cordoned off from God is not a possibility.
I’m not saying that pastors need to be refreshing RealClearPolitics or reading polling averages every day — that’s not what it means for me to engage in politics, [though] I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing. But for instance, in the book, I have a chapter on gentleness. Is gentleness viable in politics? And if we don’t think it is, why is that? What do we think we need that gentleness does not offer?
I don’t know what the church has to offer when interpreting polling averages and the political horse race. I do think the church has a great deal to offer when it comes to thinking about gentleness and joy and mercy and justice and righteousness and forgiveness.
How do you deprogram people out of political nihilism and the belief, for example, that all politics and politicians are immoral, so ethics, morals, and character, don’t matter in politics?
First, we need to understand that this is, at its core, a discipleship problem when we’re talking about Christians. The church needs to get clear about what its mission and purpose is. Willard wrote a book called The Great Omission. And to paraphrase a quote from that book, Christian theology has developed in America in such a way that you can have the worst kind of character possible, but so long as you provide mental assent to a few doctrinal statements, you will go to the good place and others will go to the bad place.
The church needs to decide if getting people into heaven after they die is the goal or, in Willard’s terms, whether eternal life begins today and we have the opportunity in our life with Jesus to put on his kind of character and partner with the Holy Spirit in our daily life. These are fundamentally not political science questions.
One of the points I’m trying to make in the book is that spiritual formation is not possible without including politics. I’ve become convinced that the same person who is willing to say in politics, “Yes, Jesus would have it this way in an ideal world. But…” That [logic] doesn’t stay quarantined to the political part of someone’s life.
Unless we have a vision for discipleship of the whole person, then our vision of discipleship is going to be faulty.
At one point in the book, you say “if we want a better politics, we need to become a different kind of people.” And while I think that that’s true, I also think that the market shapes desires and shapes our politics in a very tangible way. And I think that on the one hand, while I want to agree with you that spiritual formation is needed for us to have better politics, the Marxist in me is saying the only way that things are going to change in society is if we imagine something outside of capitalism.
But where does that imagination come from?
I’m trying to learn from Jesus how he would live my life if he were me, whether I’m at school, whether I’m at work, whether I’m in the voting booth, etc. Yes, there are structural changes and policies that would have a positive or negative effect on our formation. Would different campaign finance laws mean that the pressures that politics places on the human spirit would be different? Yes. But this book is not a policy book.
What I’ve been convinced of working in politics in [Washington,] D.C., for 15 years, is that if we want lasting change in the right direction, we need to be the kind of people who could carry through with our intentions. Only then will the right structural changes emerge.
I think some people believe that things just are the way they are because that’s the way they are. But no. The current systems in place came from a particular kind of people. Unless we grapple with that, then the idea that we’re going to justly change those systems or affect those systems doesn’t line up with the human condition, and frankly, just what we know about public policy and politics.
Is there ever a time when Christians should be partisan?
In some ways, asking whether Christians should be partisan is asking whether Christians should be involved in politics at all, because our politics are literally structured through party politics.
Here’s what I would say: There’s a difference between participating in partisan politics and taking your marching orders from political parties. I think we need folks who are participating in political parties and the machinations of our politics.
But as I lay out in the book, I view political parties as a vehicle, whereas many are now treating parties as a brand, as an identity. If that’s how you approach political parties, you’re going to end up in a tricky place. Also, I don’t believe that’s what political parties are actually built for. There is a difference between participating in party politics and having your political outlook and participation being dictated by the logic of our political parties.
I think Jesus is partisan. It’s hard for me to imagine someone reading the gospels and coming away thinking, “Wow, Jesus loves rich people.” I read the gospels and it’s very obvious that Jesus loves the sinners, the tax collectors, the sex workers, the poor, et al. When I’m reading your book, it’s obvious to me that you, too, are very concerned about poor people. I bring this up to emphasize that there are some issues in our society and politics that are always going to be partisan issues. That’s not to say that the people on the Right side of the aisle don’t care about charity. But it is to say that the issue of caring for the poor is an issue that is associated with politics on the Left.
My concern for the poor and civil rights is what led me to be a Democrat. So, I get what you’re saying. Let’s assume you’re right that the question of care for the poor is always a partisan one and that it’s always clear which sort of side of the ledger the partisan nature of the question falls on. One of the problems is that care for the poor is not the only issue in our politics, right?
Yet we have a binary system. So based on a whole number of factors — what a Christian considers to be most salient at the time, what they consider most likely to be politically actionable at the time, a whole range of factors — a Christian might have the same judgment as you on the question of which party is better aligned with the poor [and have other reasons to vote for the other party.]
I write this in my first book, when I took a campaign job, working for a candidate doing religious outreach, the easiest thing to do is to say, “If you are a real Christian, you’ll vote for my candidate.” That’s what our politics typically does: It lays these moral burdens on folks that are ill-fitting to the nature of the question. I don’t think politics should be absent of moral burden, but I do think the moral burden that people feel from our politics — and that politics places on people — should be rightly shaped and fitted to what politics is for.
There is Christian freedom in electoral choices and positions on policies; what Jesus is concerned about, I believe, is the orientation of the heart. That makes Jesus’ concerns less politically useful if you’re looking to coerce and manipulate and box people in. It means that now we can place our politics under the kingdom of God, under what Willard refers to as the effective range of the will of God, and to place the range of our effective will under that of God’s.
And to your point, that means that we’re going to have a preferential option for the poor. Now folks can talk about exactly what that looks like, but I just think Christian tradition is really clear on this that the preferential option for the poor is one of the key criteria of what it means to have a Christian approach to politics.