How Christians can make positive contributions to public life

America is becoming more diverse – in terms of politics, race, and religion. The great melting pot that America is poses challenges for the church. But it also offers opportunities.

By Michael Wear and Amy E. Black

By 2045, the racial composition of America is predicted to look substantially different than it does now. It is estimated that the nation will become “minority white,” and Hispanics will account for about a quarter of the population.

The nation’s religious makeup is changing as well. More than three-quarters of senior citizens in America identify as Christians – but for those under 30, only about half do. The largest religious shift of the last decade has been described as the rise of the “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation.

Meanwhile, a very different set of trends is at play in other corners of the world. In contrast to the U.S., the percentage of religious disaffiliated is declining. While there are fewer Christians who report that faith is important in their lives in the U.S. and Europe, Christianity is spreading rapidly in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, China, and other places.

We are in uncharted waters.

We conducted in-depth interviews with more than 50 Christian leaders (mostly, but not entirely, pastors) from a variety of denominations, traditions, locales, and political and theological perspectives. The findings, not surprisingly, show sharp political divides in some areas between groups, but also reveal a broad consensus around the value of pluralism in America and the opportunities it brings for Christians to live out their faith and contribute to the common good and formation of civic character.

The resounding message is that Christian thought and practice has much to offer America in this new pluralistic moment.

The resounding message is that Christian thought and practice has much to offer America in this new pluralistic moment. Ultimately, Christian civic engagement requires determining how best to apply Christian principles to public life. This process requires great discernment, and leaders across traditions and social locations vary significantly in their interpretations of what is best. But our interviewees pointed us to ideas and recommendations – ways Christians can contribute positively to public and civic life.

Go local

One of the most resounding themes repeated in our interviews was the importance of working at the local level. Although local communities are not immune from some of the negative effects of polarization, direct service and grassroots activism provide opportunities to work across political, racial, socio-economic, religious, and other differences.

In localities, communities – including their political leaders – have practical problems they must confront: homelessness, hunger, failing schools, child welfare, human trafficking, sickness, environmental degradation, and many more. National political dynamics have fewer direct effects at the local level than individuals and groups offering to help and serve. Christian individuals and communities can organize and partner with non-Christians, local non-profits, and local governments to meet critical needs. This work can be even more powerful when various Christian communities, even those with significant theological, racial, political, or other differences, are able to join together and work side by side.

Work to connect Christian thought to public life

Although local work is essential, national-level institutions also play an important role in cultivating Christians for civic life. Many Christians, as attested to by this report, are not well equipped to connect the teachings of their faith with its implications for public life. The theological and political differences within Christianity are vast, so Christians will not easily come to agreement on a single, “right” way of approaching these questions. Such differences are understandable and at times may even enrich public engagement. What is vital is that Christians think Christianly about politics and public life.

Many Christians … are not well equipped to connect the teachings of their faith with its implications for public life.

We encourage Christian leaders and institutions to assess how well their particular communities are equipped to connect their theology to questions of public life. Further, we encourage support of institutions that can develop both thought and practices to help Christians consider public life in community with one another and to broaden conversation among Christians to promote humble and deep engagement of different, but theologically rooted, views.

In some communities, these kinds of efforts exist, but could be expanded. In others, new efforts may need to be initiated. Similarly, as religious disaffiliation grows and the percentage of Christians declines, the need grows stronger for broadly Christian institutions that can articulate Christian principles in a publicly accessible way.

This essential work should be embraced, supported, and even expanded. Finally, if public life and politics are important (as we believe they are) Christians and churches may want to partner with political organizations – explicitly faith-based and not – who align with their values and mission, in a similar way as they partner with organizations focused on missionary work, global development, disaster relief, and other areas of concern.

Reintroduce Christianity

Building on this idea of what pluralism requires of Christians, we believe Christians should view rising religious disaffiliation and secularism as not just a challenge, but an opportunity. Christians can no longer rest on the assumption that their neighbors understand what it means to be Christian, but this means that they have the opportunity to introduce their neighbors to Christian principles and practices.

This is a historically significant moment. Much of what presents as cultural antagonism or cold indifference may derive from a lack of understanding of Christianity. This situation creates an opportunity for Christian individuals and institutions to educate others about the faith and encourage meaningful dialogue with those who do not identify as Christian.

Much of what presents as cultural antagonism or cold indifference may derive from a lack of understanding of Christianity.

Build bridges

In a pluralistic environment, diverse relationships and interactions are essential to living out the command to love your neighbor. It is impossible to show love for neighbors without knowing them and expressing interest in learning more about them. Christian leaders and organizations should focus on building bridges across various kinds of difference as an expression of the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s love and of their concern for the communities in which they are located. Christians and Christian organizations can seek to build bridges for the sake of relationship alone. But, as many of the leaders we interviewed noted, building bridges is easier when it is oriented toward some shared goal or purpose. Some of the most fruitful efforts are built around service and a pursuit of the common good.

Diversity alone doesn’t make for healthy pluralism.

Be distinct

Diversity alone doesn’t make for healthy pluralism. Pluralism is healthy when people feel they can enter the public as they are, free to express themselves without fear. Christians have made and can continue to make contributions in a pluralistic America that are not uniquely Christian. Such contributions offer great benefits. However, Christians who are willing to take up the call should also be welcomed to make distinctly, identifiably Christian contributions in public. Christians – like anyone from any faith background or none at all – need a place in the public square to express their views and make distinct contributions that result from living out their faith commitments.

This text was excerpted from The Trinity Forum’s report, Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United StatesThe report was co-authored by Michael Wear, Founder of Public Square Strategies, and Amy E. Black, Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College (IL). 

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