why political participation may be irresponsible

OK. I’m going to lay another bit of To Change The World on you.

Brace yourself.

This one’s going to sting…

Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed [sic] parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.

According to Hunter, this is the third irony of Christian engagement in the modern West. And it certainly cuts pretty deep when I reflect on my own approach to political participation.

I know that I’m way more willing to speak out and agitate for change than I am to shoulder the responsibility to make changes where I am — or to take the trouble to get myself into a position to make more effective and wide-reaching changes.

It also reminds me of something Lesslie Newbigin once wrote about the need to anchor Christian social action in the life of the local congregations.

Not only can our common worship of the one who is Lord over both church and world prevent social action from setting sail for a distant country which bears little resemblance to the gospel-motivations that launched it.

But, better still, it helps ensure that we can’t avoid taking responsibility and owning it ourselves.


  1. what do you think about things like the ACL and even GetUp!?

    i’m very unsure of who is behind the ACL, or what they do, but they seem like the kind of group Christians might be able to get involved in.

    i liked the idea of GetUp! because they seemed to be very much involved with their members, and at least one of the founders was a Christian. however since the person i know of has left, they have taken a turn for the worse, with maybe 1 in three campaigns being based on an ideal of freedom that leads down a disturbing path, and they don’t reply to (at least my) dissenting emails!

    but something like these groups does seem to allow real engagement, and on different levels. from signing a petition, to sending money, to hosting gatherings, to attending rallies – it enables those interested to act where they feel comfortable and are able.

    so i guess i wonder if there are means of ‘owning responsibility’ in such a political manner in a place where our vote is worth so little.

    1. Hi Doug,

      Thanks for the question. My sense with the ACL — and it’s not a very deeply informed sense, so please take it with a very large pinch of salt! — is that they are pressing for exactly the kind of narrowly political engagement that Hunter regards as potentially dangerous.

      However, like you, I feel that there must be something right about finding ways to engage publicly on different levels (beyond merely lobbying and voting for particular politicians/parties that we hope will implement policies we like) — particularly when it comes to just making a start rather than being put off by the size of the task or the apparent futility of our vote.

  2. Hey Chris (and Doug)

    I would agree that ACL are indeed after that narrow political engagement, but also that there is obviously something worthwhile about political engagement. My question, perhaps to Doug, would be: why does a Christian’s political involvement need to be, well, Christian?

    In 2007 in the United States, Jerry Falwell made the claim that no candidate could win the White House without the imprimatur of his evangelical movement. While ACL isn’t as hideous as the American “religious right,” I wonder if it secretly lusts after a position that would allow them to make a similar statement. Every election time there is boastful talk from ACL of “candidates going after the Christian vote,” and their list of voting issues is replete with the usual suspects (O, the fear that our atheist PM might not want to say the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament each day!).

    But I digress. I’m yet to be convinced that there is a “Christian” answer to most political issues. How, for example, does ACL lobby on climate change? carbon tax? roads and transport? Is there a Christian way to fix the NSW Public Transport mess? I digress again…

    1. hi chris and chris

      good question. i must clarify, i don’t think i would ever vote for a political party who claim as a whole to be christian, but my example of GetUp! and i guess as well the Greens is these are groups with whom i have so much in common with but feel completely disenfranchised from in some areas that i think are pretty important.

      so i don’t wish for a christian organisation but i was excited about a group that had christians in them as a part of the voice. and increasingly, be it the Greens or the Socialist Alliance, unless you agree to particular gender ideals and views on human dignity, you are excluded.

      so, to return to Chris’ original point, perhaps it’s better said that i like the idea of a group which doesn’t so blatantly exclude christians from any engagement with them for good, be it ‘christian’ or otherwise. (thanks for forcing me to clarify!)

    2. Thanks for carrying the conversation forward, Chris and Doug.

      My counter question to your question, Chris would be: How can a Christian’s engagement with anything be anything less (or other) than Christian?

      I think I agree that there’s unlikely to be one correct ‘Christian’ answer to issues of climate change or roads and transport (and certainly not an answer to every question that happens to align perfectly with one particular political party. But surely our being Christian has some bearing on our stance towards these issues — if not at a narrowly political level (who I vote for, what policies I endorse, etc), then perhaps at the level of the attitude and tone we bring to broader public engagements (trusting that Jesus is Lord, recognising the pervasiveness of sin, etc).

      I know it doesn’t sound very two kingdoms-ish. So what say you?

    3. I’m not for a moment suggesting that a Christian’s faith is somehow excluded from their every interaction in the world. The example you gave is a good one – if nothing else, our faith should impact the tone and attitude.

      However, while the tone and underlying assumptions with which we approach public debate may well be uniquely Christian, the outcomes, actions and arguments (and there’s my plug for natural law!) will probably not be distinctly “Christian.” However Christian political parties would have us believe that there is a Christian outcome for defence spending, drug legalisation, homosexual marriage and women in burkas.

      And so, in true 2K fashion, I would call on, for example, Jeremiah’s commands to the exiles in ch. 29 which – and I understand that they are not referring to politics, but rather to cultural engagement generally – give no indication of a distinctly Jewish way of interacting, rather the emphasis is simply on interacting. Presumably the prophet knew he was writing to God’s people, and so he assumed that they couldn’t help but exist as such (and thus, bring a certain tone, etc to the various activities to which they were called). But they didn’t need to go looking for ways to assert that their house-building and garden-planting was “Christian.”

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