As we move closer and closer to the November election, many of us are still wondering what it means to live as a Christian in a political world. More than ever we need clarity, wisdom, and God’s Word to help us navigate the turbulent waters of our society.In her new book, The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor, Kaitlyn Schiess provides readers just that — a biblical guide not about how to vote, but about how to live and move and have our being, as Paul writes, in the world today. I interviewed Schiess about her goals for the book, how pastors can wisely and boldly talk about politics, and what role the church has in discipleship around civic engagement.
What was your original goal for The Liturgy of Politics?
I wrote The Liturgy of Politics because I was a seminary student reading everything I could get my hands on about political theology and spiritual formation, but I wanted something accessible and contextual to hand to my fellow students. I started seminary during the 2016 election, so we had conversations about political engagement in and out of classes. While most of my classmates were concerned about the political formation of people in the church, they were unsure about what their role was. They didn’t want to preach partisan politics, but they also recognized the spiritual influence politics was having on people they loved. My goal for The Liturgy of Politics was not to offer all the answers for our present political turmoil, but that it would point Christians back to foundational truths about the mission of God’s people in the world.
What would you say to a pastor who understands the importance of engaging in the public square, but doesn’t know where to start?
KS: The church should be the political center of Christians’ lives. It is a training ground for our work in the world, the place of our primary identity and community, and an institution oriented outside itself — to the life of the world. It might sound like a cop-out, but I don’t think we often sufficiently grasp this reality.Pastors have an incredibly important role in shaping the political lives of their people because they have an incredibly important role in shaping the spiritual lives of their people, which is to say, their whole lives.
If pastors want to engage their people politically, they should start by grappling with the inherently political nature of their weekly proclamation: Jesus is Lord (and so Caesar or Trump or Biden is not). We, the people of the church, need our pastors to tell us the truth, not shying away from passages that step on our political toes but leaning into the uncomfortable truths that will ultimately set us free of the idols strangling us.
We need our pastors to form communities where the primary identity and loyalty of the people is to the global and historic people of God over any other identity or loyalty. They do that by preaching sermons that draw on Christians from across time and space, singing songs that draw our hearts to love the global picture of redemption found in Scripture more than the modern individual gospel, and confronting the competing loyalties they see in their own people in their own context. That is where we start.
An integral part of the argument you make in the book includes a description of the alliance between religious conservatives and the Republican party becoming unbalanced. This is often something many conservatives don’t see, whether they have made this alliance or not. Why is it important for conservatives to see this relationship for what it is, and how can they take steps to change the nature of the relationship?
It's hard for many of us to see the unbalanced relationship many evangelicals have had with the Republican party because it’s been the water we’ve swam in for decades. Many of us grew up in communities and churches where this relationship, Christian = Republican, was so natural that questioning it feels like questioning something foundational about our faith. It’s important we recognize this relationship for what it is because we risk placing political preferences on the same level as our faith, with dangerous consequences for our witness. Not only do we risk alienating people, our total allegiance has and will continue to force us into the position of denying ethical commitments for the sake of political expediency. Changing this relationship will require first changing the sources of formation in our lives.
We are naïve to think that resolving to think or act differently will have great results in the face of powerfully effective forces like our media consumption habits, the political stories we’ve grown to love, or the loyalties we’ve formed to parties or politicians. We’ll need to start with changing those habits and adopting different ones: things like regular hospitality of those who are different from us, fasting not only for our own spiritual growth but for providing materially for those in need, the songs and prayers of the church throughout history.
I want Christians to think differently about politics, but I also believe that one reason politics is so spiritually dangerous for us is that it operates primarily on these lower registers: fear, desire, loyalty, love. We won’t change our relationship with the Republican party — or any other political problem — by resolving to change it. You can’t escape the power of your affections, you can only place yourself in the right context for them to be properly shaped.
If you were speaking with a pastor one-on-one, how would you help them understand the importance of talking about issues of politics in the local church? What are some ways pastors can engage in politics in a way that promotes the gospel and their community’s flourishing?
I empathize deeply with pastors who want to avoid politics. But if there’s one thing I could tell that pastor, it’d be this: the topics you can’t breach with your people tell you a lot about the spiritual condition of your people. Any topic that is powerful cannot go ignored. If you can’t touch it, it’s an idol. This doesn’t mean that you are ever partisan, but it does mean that when passages about wealth and poverty, how nations treat foreigners, or justice for the oppressed come up, you tell your people the truth about what Scripture says. It means that you love your people enough to want them to abandon their idols, to the point of wrenching them out of their hands yourself. Politics is having a spiritual impact on your people, which means you have to engage it.
How do you see Christians create and fortify their kingdoms? What effects is this activity having on our witness? What could a better way forward look like?
I love Jeremiah. One of my favorite things is the way his ministry gives shape to something I think we desperately need to understand today: there will always be false prophets claiming that everything is okay as it is, we are better people than the naysayers call us, and God would never judge us for injustice and pride. That is the voice of fortifying our own kingdoms. We have built church cultures and habits, institutions and communities, schools and organizations, that are not permanent. At best, they are our feeble attempts at faithfulness. At worst, they are sinful attempts to consolidate power.
Most of the time they are somewhere in the middle. But none of these “kingdoms” are the kingdom of God, and so even their best versions will one day fade away. But our fallen impulse when things around us feel like they are crumbling is to hold on as tightly as we can to what we know, what makes us feel safe, what is familiar or comfortable. And Jeremiah reminds us that sometimes faithfulness to God means shouting “The Babylonians are coming, and we deserve it!” We think faithfulness means dogged commitment to what we thought at one time God was calling us to build (and maybe he was). But Jeremiah reminds us that faithfulness looks more like honesty about our own failings, holding any human creation with open hands, and accepting that sometimes a little destruction is ultimately for our own good.
We can chart a better way forward by cultivating humility, learning from people across time and the world who have practiced their faith differently than we have, and welcoming the refining that may be coming our way.