Americans—including American Christians—are a bunch of political addicts.
Every time our phone buzzes with a news or Twitter alert, we get high on excitement or outrage.
Even the Russians realized they could mess with the 2016 U.S. election by posting fake news all over Facebook and watching millions of Americans trip out in angry paroxysms.
But there is an antidote. It was brilliantly presented in a recent speech from, of all people, a rabbi from Britain’s House of Lords.
“Freedom requires not just a state, but also and even more importantly a society,” Lord Jonathan Sacks told the American Enterprise Institute in October. “A society built of strong covenantal institutions, of marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities, and voluntary associations.”
Sacks drew a useful distinction between a social contract—which emphasizes the rights citizens cede to government in exchange for certain protections—and a social covenant, which like a marriage isn’t about rights but about mutual commitment and identity.
“The social contract creates a state but the social covenant creates a society,” Sacks said. “In America,” he added, “the social contract is still there, but the social covenant is being lost.”
Sacks’ speech—filled with humor—is worth watching or reading in full.
It’s also worth quoting at length:
“And because half of America doesn’t have strong families and communities standing between the individual and the state, people begin to think that all political problems can be solved by the state. But they can’t. And when you think they can, politics begins to indulge in magical thinking. So you get the far right dreaming of a golden past that never was and the far left yearning for a utopian future that never will be. And then comes populism, the belief that a strong leader can solve all our problems for us. And that is the first step down the road to tyranny, whether of the right or of the left.
“But there is good news, which is that covenants can be renewed. That’s what happened in the Bible in the days of Joshua and Joseph and Ezekiel and Josiah and Ezra and Nehemiah. It happened in America several times. Nations with covenants can renew themselves, and that has to be our project now and for the foreseeable future. We need to renew the covenant, which means … strengthening marriage and the family. It means rebuilding communities.”
I don’t think we should draw direct parallels, as Sacks does, between America’s social covenants and the covenants of the Old Testament. That said, the Bible does show a preference—similar to Sacks’—to handle public issues with bottom-up rather than top-down approaches.
Moses addressed the laws of the Pentateuch to the people of Israel—not to judges—because justice was the duty of the community.[i] Moses also appointed judges from the people to mediate disputes, rather than centralizing everything under him.[ii] Paul encouraged Christians to settle disputes among themselves rather than going to court.[iii] Paul also encouraged families to take care of widows rather than relying on the church (let alone the government) to do so.[iv]
In short, the Bible tells us to submit to the governing authorities, but not to look to them first to solve our problems. This is a lesson Americans—including American Christians—must relearn.
I’m not saying all Christians in America are failing to labor at strengthening marriages, families, churches, charities, schools, communities. Many are—often heroically and sacrificially so.
But count the number of conversations you have about the president versus the PTA. Congress versus your congregation. The nation versus your neighborhood.
If you’re like me, these ratios are way out of whack. Why? Because it’s far easier to talk politics and vote than it is to actually engage with my neighbors and their challenges.
Like any addict, we’re neglecting vital parts of our lives so we can instead get our next fix. This is both harmful and ineffective.
Over-emphasizing politics will fail to actually change our society—as James Davison Hunter showed in his book To Change the World. Davison counseled American Christians to distinguish the public from the political, to re-focus on all the culture-forming institutions Christians have largely abandoned, instead of zeroing in obsessively on the law-making institutions.
Davison’s book—incorrectly—counseled Christians to go silent for a time on politics. Similarly, other writers have recently sought to downgrade the importance of government in Christians’ lives or move politics into a realm in which, they claim, the Bible gives no distinctive instructions.[v]
Yet the Bible calls Christians to labor in all areas of life[vi] and do whatever they do as unto Christ[vii]—and that certainly includes government. What the Bible doesn’t do is elevate government over any other human institution. We shouldn’t either.
We should regard government as no more and no less important than the other institutions in our society—even when it’s a society that needs changing. When the Israelites were living in pagan Babylon, God told them to engage in all the institutions of societal life—commerce and community, marriage and family, and yes, even government, as the prophet Daniel did.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”[viii]
The antidote to our addiction is to go and do likewise.
[i] Bernard Jackson, Wisdom-Laws: A Study of the Mishpatim of Exodus 21:1–22:16 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 29–35. Thanks to Michael LeFebvre for bringing this insight of to my attention.
[ii] Exodus 18:13-26.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 6:1-3.
[iv] 1 Timothy 5:3-8.
[v] For the former, see Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition (Abingdon Press, 2014). For the latter view, read David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010).
[vi] Genesis 1:28.
[vii] Colossian 3:23-24.
[viii] Jeremiah 29:5-7.