One of the least useful pieces of advice I’ve ever received sounded rather sensible at the time: Don’t let your politics shape your faith; let your faith shape your politics.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea. In fact, keeping my faith free from the taint of politics is a worthy goal. The problem comes when I try to put this idea into practice. No matter how hard I try, I will always—to some extent—look at the world through a lens shaped by my own unique experiences. And my faith isn’t neatly separated out from these experiences; it’s interwoven into every aspect of my life.
Consider my childhood, for instance. The Jesus I grew up with was White. He had kind, serious eyes, and, aside from His flowing Middle Eastern robes and hair that was a touch on the long side, He could easily have passed for one of the men at my small church in rural New South Wales, Australia. The Jesus I grew up with also seemed to have political preferences. Most Adventists I knew in my hometown tended to vote for the Country Party—a politically conservative party in Australia that promised to hold the interests of farmers and small-business owners at heart. We did not vote for the Labor Party.
I’m not sure how or when I came to understand all of this, but it was sometime between the hazy mists of toddler Sabbath School and my awakening sense of identity during the Pathfinder years. The faith I knew and loved—and the Christ at the center of my faith—was familiar and comfortable. I understood clearly how I should think and act, not just within the four walls of our church, but also as I negotiated the wider world of my small town.
Looking back, I feel two competing emotions. One is a sense of awe that words uttered in a Galilean dialect of Aramaic by someone living in the rough world of Judea more than two millennia ago were helping to shape the lives of ordinary folk in 1980s rural Australia. What stunning power Christ’s words of salvation must have to bridge such chasms of time and culture!
Yet at the same time, I feel intimidated. It’s precisely because of those chasms of time and culture that the task of obedience to Christ—within the complex realities of my time and my culture—often feels so confusing.
None of us chose where we were born. We didn’t choose the families who raised us or the faith tradition of our early years. We were, as the sociologists label it, “enculturated” from an early age in the norms of our communities—communities of family and ethnicity, of town and school, and of the country of our birth.
This idea of “enculturation” is fascinating. It describes the way we absorb, spongelike and unconsciously, bits and pieces of data and belief from those we consider other members of our group—whether that group is based on our nationality, ethnicity, or religion. Our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world is shaped by our parents and extended family, and by other authority figures in our lives—teachers, pastors, mentors.
But for a Christian, the concept of enculturation is also deeply disturbing. How then do I identify, much less separate out, the strands of my faith from the beliefs and attitudes I continually absorb from elsewhere?
This isn’t an abstract question. How we understand and express our allegiance to our nation, or ethnic group, or preferred political party, or any other “tribal” group to which we belong, can have real and devastating consequences. For every hero of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, for instance, there are stories of others who claimed the name of Christ but still committed unthinkable acts of inhumanity.
I began work as editor of Liberty magazine—the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s 115-year-old journal of religious freedom—at a politically “interesting” time in the United States. A couple of months earlier a violent mob had stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, many waving flags and signs with slogans such as “Jesus: 2020” and chanting “Jesus is my Savior; Trump is my president.”
In the public handwringing after the event, media attention focused on the problem of Christian nationalism—the belief that Christian identity is central to what it means to be an American citizen. Love of country is warped into an unthinking patriotic fervor that we conflate with godliness. And this becomes a sacred shibboleth of our “tribe.”
A few months later I interviewed well-known American sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow about his new book, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy.1 He explained the positive role people of many different faiths have played throughout America’s history as they’ve brought their arguments and policy ideas into the public space and argued vigorously for them.
As we talked, however, it struck me that the reverse is also true. As the events of January 6 clearly show, this influence has been a two-way street. Just as religion has helped shape and strengthen America’s democratic values and institutions, so too has our nation’s political culture left its unmistakable imprint on American faith. Consider just this one statistic: nearly 78 percent of Republicans and some 45 percent of Democrats say believing in God is “very” or “somewhat” important to being “truly American.”2
Our political culture instructs and shapes us, and today this culture is filtered through technology. Facebook, Twitter, cable news—whatever our communication platform of choice—these are all coaching us on what’s important and what values should guide our thinking. They are making “disciples” of us. Of course, as Seventh-day Adventists we are also trained as disciples in our faith. But given average rates of media consumption in the U.S., my guess is that many of us spend more time each week being trained politically and culturally as disciples than as religious disciples.
For Adventists, this political training is not monolithic in nature. We are, after all, not only one of the most diverse faith communities in America,3 but as a church we’ve consciously avoided attempts to ally Adventism with any specific political ideology or party. Letters to the editor from Liberty readers bear out this reality: the political views of our church members are scattered across the political spectrum, from left to right.
Regardless of our own personal political convictions, however, there’s one key warning sign, a canary in the coal mine, that should make us stop and take stock of our attitudes and beliefs. That is, when these beliefs begin to negatively impact the health of Christ’s body and its ability to be faithful to its God-given mission.
Do our political positions lead us to convictions or emotions that divide us from our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are our beliefs and the way we express them fostering discord in Christ’s body? Do our opinions about public issues of the day—whether about the current occupant of the White House or masking and vaccine mandates—generate a spirit of animosity and divisiveness?
These aren’t easy questions. It takes humility and courage to examine ourselves and to challenge our visceral loyalties to our various political, ethnic, or national tribes.
A key question, then, is this: Can we express allegiance to our country, or any other group to which we belong, in ways that also acknowledge the higher claims of our faith?
For me, a clue emerges as I read through the early archives of Liberty magazine and the writings of Adventist pioneers as they grappled with the same question within their own cultural framework and time. Some of the defining issues of their day in the United States were slavery and the abolition movement, participation in the Civil War, and, later, the enforcement of state Sunday laws and the push for national Sunday laws. The many articles and letters they write addressing these questions reveal a nuanced thread of logic. There was a balance to how our Adventist pioneers approached these questions. Yes, there’s a love of country, but also a recognition of its shortcomings. There’s respect—admiration, even—for America’s founding principles and documents, but also a readiness to take its leaders to task for falling short of these ideals. As a matter of prophetic understanding, also, there was an acceptance that neither America, nor any other nation, could ever fully embody the values of God’s kingdom.
Ellen White didn’t mince words when she wrote, “The people of this nation have exalted themselves to heaven, and have looked down upon monarchical governments, and triumphed in their boasted liberty, while the institution of slavery, that was a thousand times worse than the tyranny exercised by monarchical governments, was suffered to exist and was cherished.”4
White, along with her husband, James, and other church leaders such as J. N. Andrews and John Loughborough, condemned the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. White wrote, “We are not to obey [the Fugitive Slave Law]; and we must abide the consequences of violating this law.”5
This clear-eyed view of America’s failings was no doubt strengthened by the fact that being a Seventh-day Adventist in the late nineteenth century could be a risky business. Take the case of Pastor James Scoles from Springdale, Arkansas. He volunteered to help finish painting his congregation’s newly built church and decided to complete the work one quiet Sunday morning. “I went over to the church,” he said later, “and finished up a small strip of painting on the south side, clear out of sight of all public roads; and here I quietly worked away for perhaps two hours."6 For this act Pastor Scoles was arrested and jailed, and this was just one of many cases in which Adventists and other religious minorities were prosecuted under state Sunday laws.
So as our forebears struggled with public issues of the day, they acknowledged the biblical command to respect political authorities and their legitimate authority in ordering social arrangements. At the same time, these early Adventists demonstrated time and again their willingness to hold their nation to account for its shortcomings. And most important, they unapologetically submitted to an Authority and mission far more compelling that any secular power.
There are no neat conclusions I can offer for dealing with the challenge of enculturation. There’s no handy formula that helps us separate our faith from our political or national biases. It is an inherently messy business to live with our heart in Christ’s kingdom and our feet planted in earthly kingdoms formed by nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures. But this world as we know it is not our home. We’re called to larger values and allegiances than the earthly and transient concerns of Washington, D.C.; Nairobi; Tokyo; Moscow; or small-town, rural Australia. Those values must invigorate and inform our attitudes and behavior, and ultimately people will know that we are His disciples because we “have love for one another” (John 13:35, NKJV).7
There is a living Guide who invites us to submit ourselves, with all our political and cultural baggage, to His care. And there’s a promise, also, that as we struggle to do so, the end is in sight. Our divided societies and cultures will soon be made redundant by an enduring kingdom whose “King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land” (Jer. 23:5, NIV).8
1 This interview will be published in the January-February 2022 issue of Liberty magazine, which will be available at libertymagazine.org.
2 Public Religion Research Institute’s 2021 American Values Survey, https://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/PRRI-Oct-2021-AVS.pdf.
3 See the Pew Research Forum’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/.
4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, pp. 258, 259.
5 Ibid., p. 202.
6 A. T. Jones, Civil Government and Religion (Oakland, Calif.: American Sentinel, 1889), p. 114.
7 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
8 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Bettina Krause is editor of Liberty magazine and an associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists
I first came across the unusual but useful adverb “Christianly” in an article published in 2019 about the role of faith in politics. In an interview, Michael Wear, a former director of President Obama’s White House faith-based initiative, said Christians have a special responsibility to speak up about issues of public policy.
“That doesn’t mean that we need pastors speaking on Sunday morning about what they think the marginal tax rate should be,” he said. “What it does mean is that we should be insisting that Christians are thinking ‘Christianly’ about politics.”
So, what exactly does a “Christianly” approach to politics look like? And could we perhaps go even further and try to describe an “Adventistly” way of engaging with politics?
As a worldwide church of more than 21 million members, Seventh-day Adventists are present in some 200 countries, living and worshiping under governments that span the spectrum from authoritarian regimes to well-established democracies and every form of government in between. Each country has its own unique political dynamics and grapples with its own burning questions of public policy.
Given this reality, is it even feasible to try to discover some shared principles that could somehow portray an “Adventistly” approach to politics?
Much has already been written about the way Adventists in North America historically charted the treacherous waters of political engagement.1 Ellen White, through her writings and her example, helped early Adventists develop a balanced, careful approach, which affirmed that church members could, in good conscience, vote in elections and even advocated enthusiastically for issues of public policy while maintaining careful guards on their independence and integrity.2
As you read through this guidance, some of it is clearly directed toward specific situations of her day. A common thread does seem to emerge, however, and it’s a simple, practical idea. It is that while we, as individual church members, have the freedom and responsibility to engage in the civic affairs of our nation, our participation should never be dictated by the collective say-so of a political party and its agenda.3 Rather, our participation should be guided by individual, prayerful consideration of public issues, looking at them through the more nuanced and authoritative lens of our faith and biblical values.
I’d suggest that this key idea — the wholesale rejection of uncritical party loyalty, and all the trappings of partisanship that come with it — should be at the heart of any attempt to define an “Adventistly” approach to politics.
Social scientists have a name for this strong tendency we humans have for “picking a team” in politics and rooting for it, come what may. “Partyism,” as defined by a 2017 Stanford University study, is an ingroup bias. It motivates you, as a supporter of a particular political party, to identify so strongly with your chosen “team” that you reflexively support it. And you do so even when some of its policies may actually run counter to some of your other deeply held values. This fascinating study, conducted in the United States, concluded that often a sense of political affiliation will trump other social identifiers such as gender, race, religion, language, and ethnicity.4
In other words, our political engagement begins to feel more like a game of football, where the prime objective is to score goals and beat the other team. Even worse, our subjective sense of belonging to one side or the other in politics can actually erode our commitment to our spiritual values.
This kind of blind allegiance to a specific political party is dangerous enough, but for Christians, there’s an even more insidious form of “partyism.”
One of the most unsettling concepts in today’s political discourse is the idea of “the Christian vote.” Pollsters and media commentators invoke this phrase in electorates around the world. I’ve come across it recently in news articles from the United Kingdom, the United States, Nigeria, Australia, Canada, and Egypt, where, in different ways, the so-called Christian vote has some significance within each local political context.
It’s a phrase that implies the marriage of one’s religious identity with that of a specific political agenda. It suggests that Christians can be treated as a voting bloc, with political candidates courting their favor and pandering to their perceived interests. It assumes that Christians can, by and large, be factored into political equations and relied on to help advance political interests. In some cases, this is a reality. Consider, for instance, a report by the Barna Group, an independent research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture, which traced the pivotal impact of Evangelical Christians in a recent U.S. election.5
Recently, I’ve attended a number of events for religious leaders and advocates hosted by politicians, and at times have had an uncomfortable sense that a line was being crossed. The overall tone of these occasions has sometimes carried a sense of quid pro quo, with the faith community giving their tacit blessing to a political leader, while he or she, in turn, declares, “Don’t forget I’m looking out for you.” At one such event, after a politician had talked about his commitment to care for the interests of faith communities, a staffer then urged pastors to use their pulpits to share the message. “Remember, Sunday is coming!” she said. “Sunday is coming, and you’ll have a chance to talk about all this with your members.”
This is an especially seductive form of “partyism.” We like to be “in the room.” We like to be acknowledged. We like to feel that we have visibility and respect. We can even justify this by feeling that our goals are worthy ones and our purpose is pure. But the desire for political influence and access — even if it is in support of important issues that align with our faith values — can sometimes corrupt in precisely the same way as blind allegiance to a political party. It can blunt our moral acuity and lead us to divide our loyalties in ways that White clearly saw when she warned against Adventists as a people being “unequally yoked together with unbelievers in political strife.”6
The political machinery and public policy debates of your country may look vastly different from those of the country where I live and work. But I pray that as we each consider our participation in the civic realm — whether as a voter, an advocate, or even as an elected public official — we’ll remember to “think Adventistly.” That means rejecting blind partisanship and working instead to reflect Christ and the values of His kingdom in the public space.
Bettina Krause is an associate director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. She represents the world church in Washington, D.C., engaging with United States institutions as well as with diplomatic, international, and non-governmental organizations headquartered in Washington.
1. See, for instance, the in-depth research of Adventist historian Douglas Morgan in his book, Adventism and the American Republic: Public Involvement of a Major Apocalyptic Movement (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2001). In terms of practical guidance for individual church members, two especially helpful documents are: “The Right to Vote: Shall I Exercise It?” which is a compilation by the Ellen G. White Estate; and “Church-State Relations,” an official statement adopted by the Council of Interchurch/Interfaith Faith Relations of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in March 2002 and used as a guide by the church’s Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty.
2. See Jared Miller’s account of the outspoken involvement of early Adventist pioneers in issues of temperance in “Adventists, Prohibition, and Political Involvement.” Liberty Magazine, Nov/Dec 2011.
3. “The Lord would have His people bury political questions.” “We cannot with safety vote for political parties.” “It is a mistake for you to link your interests with any political party, to cast your vote with them or for them.” Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1915), 391-393.
4. Milenko Martinovich, “Americans’ Partisan Identities Are Stronger than Race and Ethnicity, Stanford Scholar Finds.” Stanford News, August 31, 2017.
5. Barna Group, “Notional Christians: The Big Election Story in 2016.” Research release, December 1, 2016.
6. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 2:336, 337.
Bettina Krause, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department