Left, Right, and Christ

Two evangelical thinkers from opposite ends of the political spectrum come together for a compelling dialogue on polarizing issues, and prove that Christians can engage in civil and healthy political discussions -- even when they disagree.

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

About the author, Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Wilkes is the editor of UrbanFaith. He serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York and works at Habitat for Humanity – New York City as the Faith and Community Relations associate. An alum of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University, his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Sojourners Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewjwilkes.
  1. A comfortable place in society for these divisions to separate often times fall along multiple lines of thought.

    The greater question must be asked in the midst of meandering realities of reconciliation and the views on many different fronts, where does the truth lye? The simple answer is to gloss over the broad stroke of popular social/political colloquialisms and talking points that appear to be a quick fix on the surface; however, in reality they offer even more questions. http://accord1.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/177/

  2. It’s too bad this conversation in the Body of Christ couldn’t have been had years ago before sides were chosen. The world now sees us as another political faction, not representatives of the Kingdom of God. From the world’s perspective, the Religious Right is just an arm of the Republican party and the Religious Left is just an arm of the Democratic party. As the Church (Called Out Ones) of God, we are to stand up, stand out, and stand apart. In my opinion, we have formed alliances that hinder the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom.

    • You raise an interesting question. How, in your opinion, might the Church “stand up, stand out, and stand apart” on political issues without being perceived as partisan?

      • I’m not sure that can be done now. That horse may have already left the stall and the door is shut. Whatever is said now is going to be viewed through a partisan lens.

        If we want to stand up, stand out, and stand apart then we need to renounce all political affiliations. The Religious Left and the Religious Right need to come together and hammer out these issues under the authority of Scripture. Then speak as one voice to the nation. The reason I believe this is so important is because we are now viewed as just another voice. A religious one at that! The divide that exists in the Body weakens our most important task, which is to preach the Gospel.

        I know the above will never happen because folks are too convinced and too invested in their own ideas and agendas. What I speak of now can only be done by the Spirit of God, not by us!

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