“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you….” —Matthew 7:12
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announced the coming of God’s kingdom and invited his followers to rethink their thinking in light of the remarkable opportunity to live under the rule of God. Those who follow the way of Jesus find their relationships transformed as they learn to love, serve and forgive even those who mistreat them.
Loving our enemies is a high bar for anyone, and especially for politicians whose careers depend on defeating other candidates at the polls. But what about the Golden Rule? Is it reasonable to expect our leaders to offer others the courtesy, respect and cooperation that they would want others to show to them?
Before casting stones and lamenting the behavior of politicians, we should first consider whether, as followers of Jesus, we are applying the Golden Rule in our own lives: in our marriage, family, workplace, neighborhood and church relationships. Then consider if, when we enter the public square as voters and advocates, we treat our opponents as we would want to be treated.
Facts, Name Calling & Motives
A key challenge is to fairly state the facts and arguments that work against our advocacy positions. It is easy, and all too common, to caricature the most extreme and indefensible version of the policy alternative that we oppose, while presenting our own option in the best possible light. This approach seems to work in fundraising and mobilizing the base, though usually not in lobbying with professional staff who know all sides of an issue. But it can be infuriating to be on the receiving end of such treatment, especially when those who exaggerate and mischaracterize our position have a larger megaphone. Their lies offend us. Is there any reason to think that our lies don’t offend them?
Name calling is a favorite tactic. Political opponents may be called racist, sexist, socialist, homophobic, liberal, elitist or totalitarian, depending on which boogeyman a particular audience most detests. Some go a step further and personalize the slander by using nicknames or labels that attack and disrespect the person and not just their ideas. In the political world, physical violence is thankfully rare, but verbal abuse has become commonplace.
Impugning motives is a closely related practice. We claim to know not only what objectionable outcomes would ensue from others’ plans, but why they propose them. We say that opponents want to corrupt our children, or take food from the hungry, or open our borders to terrorists. If they want these things, they must be evil, and they must be stopped.
All of us have mixed motives, and only God knows the heart. “Judge not, that you be not judged,” counseled Jesus. In most cases our political disagreements are over priorities and strategies. We may differ over the best way to educate children, or provide health care, or grow the economy. But most of the time we can find broad agreement on such goals as having a safe and prosperous nation that is at peace with its neighbors, in which all citizens can live in freedom and dignity. Few people go into politics or public service with the goal of making others miserable.
A Dose of Humility
In a time when information (or misinformation) on any topic is only a few clicks away, it is tempting to think that we know more than we do. Predicting the impact of public policy decisions involves making assumptions about human behavior and future conditions that are in many cases unknowable. Economic forecasts are notoriously unreliable. We may think that a particular law will solve a vexing issue, only to find that the unintended consequences are worse than the original problem.
Personnel decisions also can have surprising consequences. Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, was popular among conservatives but authored one of the most damaging Supreme Court decisions undermining the First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion, in Employment Division v. Smith. Anyone who works in politics or public policy needs a large dose of humility.
Political Expediency or Jesus’ Teaching?
What would happen if Christians led the way in applying the Golden Rule in our political and public policy engagement? Would our policy agenda suffer? In the short term, perhaps it would. Advocacy organizations might find it harder to raise funds. Others might take advantage of our generosity. But is political expediency a good reason to disregard the teaching of Jesus? What if we decided to obey Jesus in all areas of life, and leave the results to him? Do we really think our nation, or our churches, will be better off if we conform to the world’s standards in politics? What does our history teach us in this regard?
The National Association of Evangelicals offers a resource for those who would like to consider an alternative to politics as food fight or culture war. “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” articulates a biblical basis and method for Christian civic engagement. It offers a sober-minded analysis of the structures of public life, and then lays out eight areas of concern in which evangelicals can make a difference through principled and irenic public engagement.
We invite feedback and dialogue on the best way to advance our common concerns in a way that blesses all of our neighbors, including those who may disagree with our strategies. We seek, in everything, to do for others what we would have them to do for us.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.
A free download of “For the Health of the Nation” and discussion guide are available at NAE.net/forthehealth. Printed copies are also available to order.