Who Decides What is ‘Political’ or ‘Partisan’?

A colleague of mine serves on the board of a small liberal arts university in his area. Recently, he posted on social media about a policy that the university is considering—and that the board is being urged to adopt—against, “taking official institutional positions on current social and political events.” The idea is that staying above the political arguments of the moment will help the university do a better job of helping students learn to think for themselves. Basically, not taking a position will leave space for students to explore all positions.

My colleague posted that because it got him thinking about his local church and a lot of local churches within our shared denomination. The truth is that a lot of congregations are softly apolitical and firmly non-partisan. They are softly apolitical in that a congregation might care about and do work around an issue, but draw a line at contacting their representatives about official government policy on those issues. And they are firmly non-partisan in that they shy away from taking public stands on issues that are being argued about, publicly and passionately, by the major political parties.

As an example of being softly apolitical, a congregation might care about climate change and environmental stewardship, and might do a lot of work around that. And individuals in the congregation might call their representatives, or write letters to the editor, or vote for politicians based on that issue. But the congregation would draw the line at organizing—officially as a congregation—to affect government policy on those issues. The congregation will have a clean-up day along the shores of a local river, but would refuse to put together an official letter writing campaign in support of legislation that would prevent the pollution of that same river.

As an example of being firmly non-partisan, a congregation might have been publicly supportive of LGBTQ members of the community as long as there wasn’t much local public conversation about the status of those members of the community. That same congregation might have started to shy away from that public support as school board conversations turned toward accusations of grooming, the pride flag was stolen, and politicians from a certain political party became very concerned about trans identity. And that congregation might justify that change by saying that they want to be open to everybody, and not take partisan stances, and be welcoming but not political.

Some of that is driven by understandings and misunderstandings of nonprofit regulations that prohibit nonprofit organizations from engaging in partisan activity. But some of that is also driven by the same idea that is driving the university that I mentioned above: the idea that staying out of the political arguments of the moment will help the church do a better job of being welcoming to everyone, and helping members think for themselves, and living out the gospel in a variety of contexts.

But that last bit—that living out the gospel—is where the challenge comes in.

The problem with being apolitical is that the church does not decide what counts as political, politicians and media outlets and movements do. Similarly, the problem with being non-partisan is that the church does not decide what counts as partisan, political parties do. And when the church insists on being apolitical and non-partisan, the church is insisting on letting other bodies decide what the church can speak to and what the church can do. In other words, the church is insisting on letting politicians, media outlets, movements, and political parties set boundaries around the gospel.

In 2022, there was a spate of high-profile shootings over the summer, including the shootings in Highland Park, Illinois, and Uvalde, Texas. There were also three shootings with less national—but more local—significance: at a nightclub in Cedar Rapids, at a church in Ames, and at a state park about a half an hour from the congregation that I serve. Understandably, there were people in my congregation who were concerned about gun violence; and one person suggested that have a Congregational Conversation about the issue.

I suspect that, a decade earlier, a congregation having a conversation about gun violence and gun safety—especially after several shootings relatively nearby—would have flown under the radar. There might have been some rumblings about the ‘liberal’ church in town. But we are a state that has a fairly robust gun culture. And we are a state where people think of themselves as level headed bearers of common sense who care about their neighbors. A conversation about how we might prevent these kinds of shootings should not have been out of place at all.

But by 2022—and especially in the face of these recent shootings—gun violence had become a highly political and highly partisan issue. Democrats were calling for what they referred to as common sense gun regulation while Republicans were calling for more guns and modest improvements in mental health care. We still had the conversation, but a staff member quit, some church members were unhappy, and the congregation almost immediately dropped the issue after we couldn’t come up with a solution to gun violence in a single short morning.

And this brings me to my actual point. Gun violence and gun safety are not inherently political or partisan issues; they have been made into political and partisan issues by political actors trying to appeal to specific audiences in their quest to win the modern culture wars. And while the same cannot be said for every other topic that is important to our communities, it can be said for many of them. Things that used to just be topics of discussion—and maybe even contentious discussion—have been transformed into political topics of discussion that welcoming churches are not supposed to have an opinion on.

As political actors scramble for votes and for power, they can make any issue—from what books should be in schools and classrooms to whether hungry children should receive food—into a political and partisan one. And refusing to engage topics that political actors deem be theirs means that the list of things that the church can speak on will get shorter and shorter.

That is unfortunate, because the church has important things to say about all of the issues that I’ve mentioned in this post and more. Importantly, those things stand outside of the normal political and partisan dynamic: they are not rooted in the political quest for power—which is not entirely bad but which is sometimes deeply troubling—but in the truth of God’s steadfast love for creation. In other words, as a partisan for Christ, the church invites us to consider radically new ways of doing politics.

So I do not believe that the church should cede the ground and allow political actors to circumscribe our voice. Instead, the church—and every other body of civic life, including the university—should stand up and speak out as a partisan for its own cause. And I believe that by enlarging the conversation and moving beyond the binary of Republican and Democrat, we will contribute to a better politics and, thereby, to a better world.