Greg Garrett: Faithful Citizenship: A Book Excerpt

"In the midst of today's ferment and fervor, the central Christian ideals of peace, love, and reconciliation are being lost entirely in single-issue voting, accusations of hypocrisy or apostasy, and distinctly un-Christian adversarial politics" ([Faithful Citizenship](

Since October of 2010, I've been writing this weekly column for Patheos on the intersection of religion and public life, and for the past two summers, I've been Residential Scholar at the Gladstone Library, one of the world's great research centers exploring theology and politics. During that time, I've been thinking theologically about the issues that show up in the news everyday-and about the ways we try to address them in our politics.

Those of us who try to be theological about our life together feel that America has gone badly off the rails; even those of us who call ourselves religious don't seem to be living differently from the rest of the culture. That's why Patheos asked me to write a book about what it might mean to approach political life from the standpoint of our religious beliefs instead of from the standpoint of partisan politics, and [Faithful Citizenship](, a full-length e-book from Patheos Press, is the result. I hope you'll enjoy this excerpt from the first chapter, and that it might prompt your own reflection about what it means to be a faithful citizen.

Sometimes when I tell people that I write about and try to come to some conclusions about religion and politics, they will make a face of some kind and go on to tell me either "I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious," or its secular equivalent, "I'm not a political person."

Plenty has been written about the former assertion, and I'm not going to open that up in this space. But I do want to address the latter statement, since I think people wouldn't actually respond that way if they gave it a bit of thought. What people typically mean by "I'm not a political person" is, one or more of the following:

I'm not a partisan political animal.

I don't eat, breathe, and bleed Red or Blue. 

I'm disgusted by the corruption of both major political parties.

All politics is divisive, so why talk about it? 

I think American politics is dirty, or compromised, or imperfect, so I don't want anything to do with it.

I don't trust politicians as far as I can throw them. 

I've been disappointed by the political process one too many times.

Many Americans feel these sentiments more or less strongly, but they are certainly a part of the culture. Steven Berglas, writing in Forbes, said what many of us now believe: "All politicians seem devoid of moral compasses." These negative beliefs about politics are lived out dramatically in George Clooney's 2011 political thriller The Ides of March, a world we'd honestly rather not enter. My Patheos colleague Ben Witherington wrote this withering critique of the state of American public life as represented by the film:

What's not to like?  Well frankly, almost all of the persons in the story itself, who range from arrogant to conniving to cowardly to sinister, to positively wicked.  Welcome to politics as we know it (in the dictionary the word politics is now filed under the word 'dirty' as a synonym).  For an hour and 38 minutes we follow the trail of a young bright up-and-coming campaign staffer [Ryan Gosling] for one Governor Morris of Pennsylvania [Mr. Clooney] and the questions which keep popping into one's head is-Do I like any of these people, why should I care about them, and are these really the kinds of people we end up voting for?

So I understand why the word "politics" might make you think of partisan dirty tricks, of self-interest instead of public service. That's how lots of us have come to view the word in our culture.

As compromised.

As dirty.

But when someone says "I'm not political," the meaning it almost never takes is this: I don't care what happens to me, my family, or the rest of the world. 

Eugene Cho mused after meeting President Obama, "I care about politics not because I obsess over politics. Rather, politics is important to me because it involves policies, and policies, ultimately, impact people." And the Rev. Cho is right: at its heart, political issues concern real live people, often ourselves, often our neighbors, near or far, all of whom should matter to us. As Augustine noted over 1500 years ago: "Friendship begins with one's spouse and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But considering the fact that we all have the same father (Adam) and the same mother (Eve) who will be a stranger? Every human being is neighbor to every other human being." (Sermon 299D, 1)

So if you care about our schools, you care about politics. If you're interested in whether or not you, your children, or your grandchildren will fight in a foreign war, you are interested in politics. If you wonder if your water is safe to drink or why your roads are so bad, you wonder about politics. If you think it's scandalous that we allow people to starve in East Africa or live as sex slaves in Thailand, you are thinking about politics. And if you have feelings about whether or not a woman should be allowed to have an abortion, criminals should be executed, or terminal patients should be allowed to take their own lives, you should have (and probably, if you are honest, do have) feelings about politics.

Politics is the social dimension of our lives, and it rears its head in every area of existence where people get together. It's about how individual people within a larger unit operate together, who's in charge, what rules are followed, how we can best live together. It's at work within families, inside schools, within churches, in organizations, at work, and of course in our municipal, state, and national identities.

We are social beings, as Augustine noted, called by God to practice friendship, called to live in communities. And when we live in community, that will necessarily involve negotiation, conflict resolution, goal setting, power sharing, faithful action-all the elements that we identify as belonging to the political sphere.

Ultimately it's impossible to say-and mean-that we "are not political." Being political is all about negotiating those difficult questions of our common life:

How do we relate to each other in society?

How do we relate to each other in our faith communities? 

How do we relate to each other in families, in businesses, and in our churches?

Who should be in charge? How? 

What goals should we pursue in our lives together? Why?

Thankfully, the Judeo/Christian tradition has much to say about these questions, both in scripture-whether through the Hebrew Law, the Prophets, the teachings and actions of Jesus, or the letters of Paul-and in the tradition-whether the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Rule of Benedict, the sermons and writings of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, or the political theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr, or Stanley Hauerwas, among others.

If we are created as social beings-and certainly the Church has thought so since Augustine and earlier-then it is incumbent upon us to think about how we reconcile our lives as social beings and our lives as lovers of God. Among those Christians who have considered the relationship between faith and politics, we find three main approaches. Some believe (as do many who are secular) that private faith and public life should operate in different and mutually-exclusive spheres. Your private faith should inform one part of your life; your involvement in community and political life may be shaped by your core beliefs, but you don't talk about them or try to impose them on your neighbors. You may not even see a connection between your Sunday worship and what you do in the voting booth on the first Tuesday in November.

The second and third approaches insist that Christian life always has a public dimension, and these practitioners primarily fall into two groups that Timothy Beach-Verhey calls "Christian traditionalists" and "political liberalists," who call, respectively, for laws and policies that attempt to enforce a biblical Christian morality, or for laws and policies that attempt to create Christian charity and enforce Christian justice. [Next week, we'll talk to Tim about two of America's most important political and religious thinkers, the Niebuhr brothers.]

Both of these approaches are now identified with political parties and candidates, making them a part of our divisive partisan landscape. In this book, I want to argue a fourth approach: that we can extrapolate from the Christian calls to love, justice, and service to a distinctly Christian way of seeing life in community that transcends partisan politics. In exploring these traditions and moving toward that Christian ethic for political involvement, we'll necessarily be considering these larger questions:

What does Jesus have to say about how we live in community?

What does the tradition have to tell us about how we are supposed to treat each other? 

How can we extrapolate from these Christian ideals to specific political beliefs, rather than trying to reconcile our personal and political beliefs to our faith?

How should we vote, what are our rights and responsibilities as Christians in America, what is the Christian notion of good government?

If we can answer these questions for ourselves faithfully, then when it comes time to wrestle with specific and topical political issue-in later chapters of this book, in the coming election, and in the months and years to come-we will be much more likely to approach those complicated and emotion-filled issues through our Christian theological understandings than to retrofit our religious beliefs to match what we already think we think.

Taken with author's permission from his blog at

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published at every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.