How can we engage in politics without losing our souls? It’s a question that’s been weighing on my mind in this turbulent time. When the public square is rocked by deadly disease, racism, unrest, and party polarization, it might appear that the only way to stay sane and free of darkness and despair is to withdraw into the safety of one’s private life. However, after participating in “Renewing America’s Social Fabric,” a course taught by Dr. Ryan Streeter for AEI’s Summer Honors Program, I’ve come to the conclusion that political engagement is actually essential to our personal and spiritual wellbeing. Politics for the spiritual good just entails a different kind of “politics” than we’re used to.
The idea that public life is damaging to our souls is an old and often popular one, especially among Christians. From the Desert Fathers’ retreats into the wilderness to the modern-day pseudo-monasticism encouraged by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option, there is a long tradition of the faithful extricating themselves from the doings of “the world” for the purpose of sanctification. In the United States, there is a particular brand of political quietism that has roots in Anabaptist theology. That theology has been criticized on many fronts in recent years, from within Christian circles as well as from without. Nevertheless, quietism of the Anabaptist variety retains a powerful influence.
It’s not hard to see why. Today’s public square is characterized by intense partisanship and division. Many Christians believe neither political party reflects their views, and to throw one’s weight behind a political party––even if it means no more than ticking a box on a ballot––can feel like a betrayal of their religious beliefs. Meanwhile, for those who do identify as progressive or conservative, there is the fear that entering the political fray will inevitably result in sins of the heart: hatred, greed, or despair. As Dr. David Corey, a professor at Baylor University, expressed in a lecture on the culture wars given at Christendom College:
[I]n fighting, we risk gradually giving in to feelings of anger and resentment; and our “intention” may slowly shift from the love of our fellow men (enemies included) and the love of peace to a love of the conflict itself and of the power by means of which we fight. Again, we enter war in order to do justice, but we leave having violated the requirements of charity, in effect sacrificing a higher good for a lower one, which no one should want to do.
In my class with Dr. Streeter, I learned that these concerns are not baseless. In fact, Pew social science data suggests that strong political identification among almost half of Republicans and Democrats results in viewing political opponents as “close-minded,” “immoral,” and perhaps even “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” Furthermore, according to AEI’s Survey of Community and Society, people who are involved in politics are less likely to be involved in their immediate communities and more likely to be unhappy. Political volunteering is the only form of volunteering that correlates with above-average levels of loneliness. All this suggests that heightened political engagement could engender negative feelings toward others and increase unhappiness.
As someone who is currently working for AEI’s Initiative on Faith & Public Life, I firmly believe that Christians should not be apathetic about politics, and that God asks us to live out our beliefs in the public square, not just in the privacy of our homes. But with social science data indicating strong negative effects from political engagement, how can Christians participate in the political arena without losing other core Christian values in the process? Is it possible to uphold the common good and our own spiritual good at the same time?
The answer depends on our definition of “politics.” If the public square is only the federal government, then there really might not be a way to have an active presence in politics without putting one’s self at risk. The findings from Pew and AEI suggest our national politics is so characterized by conflict, and even hatred, that it is indeed a dangerous world to enter. But there is an older, more expansive definition of politics. When Aristotle said that humans were political by nature, he was not referring strictly to formal governmental structures. His understanding of “political” encompassed everything that concerned public life, from the marketplace to the temple to the theater. By this original definition, politics refers to the whole of civil society, as well as to the official government. And by this definition, the answer to the question I pose above can be a wholehearted yes.
Academic research is nearly unanimous that engagement in non-governmental institutions of civil society leads to greater levels of happiness and more positive feelings toward others. Whether it’s volunteering at the neighborhood soup kitchen, playing in a local sports league, or supporting a church, the effects are beneficial. In Dr. Streeter’s words, the data show that “community activities, especially religious involvement, build social capital and serve as antidotes to isolation.”
What does this mean for those of us who are politically minded but concerned for our personal and spiritual wellbeing? I don’t believe it means we need to abandon our involvement in national politics altogether. Common sense tells us that to be good citizens––and charitable Christians––we need to keep abreast of current affairs and work toward the flourishing of the country as a whole. Some problems, after all, can only be addressed on a national scale. But for the average person, who is neither a legislator nor a public intellectual, the best level of involvement might be quite limited, more so than we’ve been led to think. The work of Dr. Streeter and others suggests a great many Americans are investing too much time and effort into federal politics, and the effects are harmful.
In this troubled time, when it is so easy to lose our inner peace over the national news, we should remember that the country’s welfare does not hinge on our individual actions or opinions, and we should reconsider whether or not we’re pouring out too much of ourselves into something that most of us have relatively little influence in or responsibility for. We might find that we’re neglecting our immediate communities––our neighborhoods, churches, and cities. If we divert more of our energy into our localities, we might rediscover a different kind of politics, one that works for the personal and spiritual, as well as the common good.