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Chris CrawfordJanuary 12, 2023
(iStock/jorgeantonio)(iStock/jorgeantonio)

I have spent the better part of the last decade working at the intersection of faith and politics, first as a Republican and pro-life political activist, then as a program officer focused on funding faith-based initiatives, and now as an advocate for American democracy. During this time, I have observed the decline of trust in institutions both in the religious and political realm. Last summer’s Gallup poll on confidence in institutions painted a grim picture in which only 31 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in churches and organized religion, and none of our federal governmental institutions (the president, Congress and the Supreme Court) had the confidence of more than a quarter of the population.

This is not just a crisis of democracy; it is a crisis of faith. Some of the decline in trust is certainly due to the well-known scandals in American Christian denominations, but there is also a scandal in the way that Christians have been catechized to engage in public life. There are countless examples: Insurrectionists leading a prayer from the floor of the U.S. Senate after ransacking the Capitol; Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoking St. Paul to justify immoral immigration policies; Democratic candidates speaking in churches about the need for abortion on demand without the slightest nod to the humanity of the unborn. Too often, our partisan identities have been driving the way our faith manifests itself, rather than our faith driving the way we engage in public life.

As Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about American Catholics in a New York Times column in 2020, “the logic of partisanship has replaced the moral primacy of the faith.” Our entire public life is seemingly driven by division and otherization. Our political tribalism leads us to defend the indefensible on our own side as well as to completely discount, discredit and demonize those with whom we disagree.

Our political tribalism leads us to defend the indefensible on our own side as well as to completely discount, discredit and demonize those with whom we disagree.

The answer is not to separate our public beliefs from our private beliefs. As America’s former editor in chief Matt Malone, S.J., wrote last year, “I cannot divorce my faith from my politics any more than I could divorce oxygen from my lungs. Faith and politics are not merely complementary; they are inextricably intertwined. Each needs the other to be fully what each is meant to be. For the raison d’être of all political questions is hope that the world can change.”

That complementary relationship is harder to maintain as politics has become a pervasive force that demands zero-sum thinking and molds faith to itself, rather than faith and values informing our politics. Ultimately, our public life is facing a crisis that stems from a related crisis in Christian formation. Christians are being formed by political leaders, radio and television hosts, and social media stars rather than by the words of the Gospel and our savior, Jesus Christ. Too often, these leaders treat Christianity as a political identity group rather than a religion with enduring beliefs and values.

There are existing efforts to change this dynamic, including the heroic work of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, which is helping Catholics from all political persuasions learn what it means to have our politics informed by the Gospel and by Catholic social thought—not just in the candidates or policies we support but in the way we go about supporting them. We should be willing to hold our candidates to higher standards, including demanding that they provide a vision for the common good. We should be willing to work for those visions with people with whom we disagree and refrain from tactics of dehumanization, demagoguery or the distortion of the truth.

Now is the time to strengthen such initiatives and to build more institutions in the field of Christian political engagement. That is why I am honored to serve on the founding board of the Center for Christianity and Public Life—a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit institution based in Washington, D.C., making the case for the credibility of Christian resources in public life, for the public good.

We will give voice to a broad cross-section of American Christians from across denominations who are resisting nihilism and sectarianism in American politics, and who are leading through their examples of charity, grace and a collaborative spirit. While so many Christian leaders in our politics act as though God’s glory depends on their political machinations, we contend that we must recognize that we are reliant on God and that Jesus’ example can serve our politics and our country. We reject approaching partisan politics as an idol, and will remind our Christian brothers and sisters that political decisions are not matters of religious dogma but are largely about prudential matters, as our president, Michael Wear, has written.

The Center for Christianity and Public Life recognizes that we are reliant on God and that Jesus’ example can serve our politics and our country.

We can hold fast to core values such as recognizing the dignity of every human being and prioritizing the needs of the poor and marginalized while also allowing for disagreements on the best policies to achieve these ends—and which candidates are best equipped to serve our communities. But we must first ensure that we are coming to our political arena to serve these just ends, and to orient our political engagement toward them.

Ultimately, we believe that politics should be a forum for loving our neighbors rather than a forum for expressing contempt, and that Christian leaders should be equipped with the support and tools that they need to provide this service to their communities and country. These tools include fellowship programs, peer networks and supportive communities of Christian leaders from across the political spectrum who can learn from and with each other. We recognize the truth that is apparent to many religious and secular observers: A revitalized focus on, and commitment to, spiritual formation is central for the civic renewal that our country so desperately needs.

In “Deus Caritas Est,”Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “it is not the church’s responsibility to make [its] teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest.” He called building a just and civil order “an essential task which every generation must take up anew.”

At this crucial moment for American Christians and the nation we love, we indeed must take up the task of making the example of the Gospel come alive in our approach to politics, to model the love that was shared by God with us as we strive to serve our neighbors in turn. This is the path that can reflect a robust civic pluralism that can encourage Christians from all walks of life to bring their unique contributions to build a more just society, working hand in hand with our brothers and sisters of other faiths and of no faith at all.

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