Election Day last November had many Christians wringing their hands. With their candidates defeated and other losses for social conservatives, a number of Christians I know felt alienated from the direction our country is headed and worried about its future.
I feel a little differently. We are never going to build the kingdom of God at the ballot box. However, the election results should provoke us toward a reevaluation of our priorities and especially our strategies for making disciples of Christ and building the kingdom of God. As we look at the next four years, five issues rise to particular importance.
1. Render to Caesar. In their study of contemporary religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam and Notre Dame professor David Campbell write that the extraordinary rise of people who affiliate with no religion is due to their rejection of its entanglement with politics. Barely registering on surveys two decades ago, the “nones” have been growing at a rate of one percent annually. Today, 20 percent of the population says they have no faith. Putnam and Campbell write, “A growing number of Americans, especially young people, have come to disavow religion. For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics. If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them.”
Staking our faith on our political position, we have made Christ smaller. Especially in a diverse, pluralistic society, there are often a number of legitimate political positions for Christians. Jesus was careful not to entangle himself in the political debates of his day. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said. Yet, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, he railed against injustice, healed the sick, and lifted up the poor and oppressed.
2. Religious freedom. While we need to untangle the threads that have tied churches to political parties, we also need to watch out for encroachment on the free exercise of religion. Thanks to our First Amendment prohibiting Congress’s “establishment” of religion or restricting its “free exercise,” we have always granted broad—though not universal—religious freedom. Many Christian organizations have been alarmed, however, by recent policies that leave little room for conscientious objectors. One of the nation’s largest providers of health care services, the Catholic church, is being forced to pay for services to which it has had a deep and longstanding moral objection. After Louis Giglio was disinvited from praying at the inauguration, it seems Christians holding traditional views on sexuality are unwelcome. On a number of fronts, faith-based groups are being put under pressure to compromise their principles, and the price may be high.
3. Foreign assistance funding. The consequences of the government’s financial troubles will be felt for a long time and across all areas of the federal budget from defense to entitlements. However, the effects of cuts to federal spending will fall hardest on the poor, especially the international poor. For example, a ten percent cut to American aid could cause 400,000 people in Africa to lose their HIV medication, potentially threatening their lives. If current budget reductions take place, there would be a roughly $480 million cut to international AIDS funding. While many Christians argue these programs are not the government’s responsibility, replacing this funding by private sources would be a monumental task. But there is also an important role for governments to play here. Addressing global public health threats, supporting diplomatic policies with American assistance, and expressing the goodwill of the American people all require assistance at the level of the government. Because these programs are so effective and have been so successful, the number of lives at stake is enormous.
4. The charitable deduction. Every church and charity in the country has been holding its breath for the last several months as the President and Congress have considered reducing or eliminating the deduction for charitable giving. Already limited in the recent “fiscal cliff” arrangement, as Congress considers comprehensive tax reform, the charitable deduction will likely again be up for debate.
Most people don’t give to charity in order to get a tax deduction, but reducing or eliminating the deduction means people are paying more in taxes leaving them with less money to give away. Every church and ministry in the country could suffer significantly. More important than the institutional budgets at risk is the fact that the needy, the broken, the hungry and the homeless who receive help from these churches and ministries will suffer even more.
5. Loving our neighbors. With governments unraveling the safety net for the poor here and around the world, it is even more critical for the faith community to obey the commands of Jesus to reach the needy, the broken, the hungry and the homeless This has always been a more effective strategy for winning people to Christ than waging legal or pundit battles. By showing compassion and mercy to our neighbors, in our own communities and around the world, we are working for the only kingdom that really matters.