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