Nicholas Wolterstorff’s perceptive commentary on neo-Calvinist contributions to political activity is a welcome addition to discussions of Christian political engagement. Christian foundations of political thought are important and worthy of discussion, but in the current moment when fear and anger animate so much of American politics, Wolterstorff’s particular emphasis on political activity is especially prescient.
I have been invited to comment and expand upon Wolterstorff’s reflections from the vantage point of the broad evangelical movement. In my response, I will begin by noting current trends in the electorate that impede faithful political engagement and then consider some of the emphases in neo-Calvinist teachings that can helpfully inform evangelical political engagement, regardless of theological tradition. Then I will expand upon his call for a politics marked by civility, fairness, and empathy with some suggested practices.
Uninhibited Fearfulness, Hyperpartisanship, and Their Consequences
Wolterstorff reminds us that politics at its best can serve great good, for it provides constructive space to care for the community and resolve differences peacefully. In the current environment, however, politics has devolved into an all-too-often toxic forum for expressing outrage, fearmongering, and denigrating others. Many obstacles make it difficult to engage in politics in a manner that respects human dignity. Political scientists have identified three forces currently at play in the United States that fuel divisive politics: affective polarization, negative partisanship, and calcification. These trends make it difficult to engage in the civil, fair, and empathetic politics Wolterstorff envisions.
Partisanship—attachment to or identification with a particular political party—is a neutral term.
Recent trends, however, show some patterns related to partisanship that are likely contributing to the growing distrust, anger, and incivility in politics. The biggest numerical trend is party polarization, the increased political distance between the two parties. Party polarization is strongest at the elite levels. Republicans in Congress have grown increasingly conservative in the past two decades, even as Democrats in Congress have become more liberal. Very few moderates are left in either party; those who remain risk facing in-party competition in primary elections from more extreme partisans.
In and of itself, this pattern of widening differences between the two major parties need not be problematic. What makes the current era of polarization so toxic is a related and growing phenomenon called affective polarization. As one group of political scientists describe: “Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines, or even partner with opponents in a variety of other activities. This phenomenon of animosity between the parties is known as affective polarization.”1 In contemporary politics, voters are not simply ideologically distant from one another; many are increasingly hostile toward those from the other political party.
Consider some data that map these trends. Pew Research Center surveys show a marked increase in partisan hostility between 1994 and 2022. In 1994, 17 percent of Democrats surveyed had very unfavorable views of Republicans and 21 percent of Republicans had very unfavorable views of Democrats. By 2022, majorities of registered voters who identified with a major party (54 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans) viewed the other party very unfavorably. Partisans do not simply hold unfavorable views of the other party as a political organization; they also have negative views of members of the opposing party on a range of traits. For example, more than eight of ten (82 percent) Democrats said Republicans are more closed-minded than other Americans, and 72 percent of Republicans said Democrats were more dishonest and more immoral than other Americans.2
A group of researchers who study the role of implicit bias against groups has found strong evidence that anti-partisan sentiments are deeply held. Consider this one finding: survey respondents were more willing to accept if their child marries someone of another race or religion than if their child marries someone from the other political party. Summarizing their work, the team reported that voter hostility toward the opposite political party has grown even stronger than racial divides, concluding that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial animosity.”3
Along with the growth in affective partisanship has been a related pattern, negative partisanship, which occurs when aversion toward the opposite party drives voters more than support for their own party. Under these circumstances, voters are more likely to cast a ballot against a candidate they dislike than to vote for a candidate they positively affirm. A relatively new phenomenon at the national level, negative partisanship appears to have been a driving force in the 2012 presidential elections, and it grew even more significant in 2016 and 2020. As journalist Thomas Edsall described, “Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty.”4
Current societal norms foster affective and negative partisanship. Laws prohibit differential treatment of others based on race, ethnicity, or gender, and social norms strongly discourage disparaging these groups. Yet very little stands in the way of people expressing contempt or disdain for their political opponents. Indeed, many social cues encourage belittling political opponents. Open animosity for the opposing party is pervasive on cable talk shows, in social media, and in political campaigns, powerfully signaling that it is acceptable, and perhaps even laudable, to hate and denigrate political opponents.
A third contributing factor, calcification, refers to the rigidity of partisan attachments: “Voters are increasingly tied to their political loyalties and values. They have become less likely to change their basic political evaluations or vote for the other party’s candidate.”5 As identity politics has grown more powerful in both parties, voters are more likely to connect their political views with their race, ethnicity, or religion. For many Americans, for example, to be secular is to be a Democrat; to be religious is to be a Republican. When partisanship becomes so deeply intertwined with personal identity, politics grows increasingly tribal.
Even as measures of affective polarization, negative partisanship, and calcification rise to new heights, power is closely divided between the two parties. Recent presidential elections have been close, and margins of party control of both houses of Congress have been small. Such patterns exacerbate the problems of affective polarization and calcification—partisans dig in their heels, rebuff attempts at bipartisan compromise, and refuse to cede any ground to the “enemy” across the aisle. Narrow margins raise the stakes and discourage cooperation across party lines; in an attempt to maintain power, party leaders believe that they must claim all major policy victories for themselves and not risk sharing credit with their rivals. The result is gridlock.
In such a political climate, Americans are growing more alienated from those who hold opposing political views and are less willing or able to treat those who differ from them with dignity and respect. At their worst, such patterns of behavior lead people to see their political opponents as subhuman and treat them as such. Raging partisan and ideological battles make it all too easy to disregard the truth that everyone—fellow partisans as well as political opponents—has the dignity of bearing the image of God.
Sadly, many Christians are caught in this web of destructive politics, and their behavior looks far too much like their secular peers. From high-profile Christian leaders to everyday people in the pews, many invoke God’s name as they join in angry, hateful shouting matches. When Christians engage in such divisive politics, it harms their gospel witness.
The Distinctive Kuyperian Witness and Political Activity
Neo-Calvinism and the Kuyperian tradition have made many laudable contributions to Christian political engagement, providing a coherent system of thought and practice that serves as a foundation for understanding political actors and institutions and offers principles to guide healthy political engagement. Such coherence is welcome, especially for evangelicals who come from many different theological traditions—including many believers not moored in any specific tradition at all—and who tend to emphasize individual spiritual experience over collective wisdom and practice. Evangelicals, like Christians from all traditions, need theological underpinnings that guide faithful Christian living. Neo-Calvinism offers one such coherent theological view.
Wolterstorff’s discussion highlights several neo-Calvinist convictions about humanity that are helpful in building a broader Christian political ethic. The first conviction, widely shared across Christian traditions, is that all humans “possess the ineradicable dignity of bearing the image of God.” In the midst of political battles, people too quickly forget this essential truth. Respect for human dignity should guide all political actions.
He points to two other convictions, not as broadly emphasized across traditions, that also build a useful foundation for approaching politics: a concept of natural law and a holistic view of religion. Both natural law in the Catholic tradition and its counterpart in the Reformed tradition, common grace, suggest that humans are instinctively aware of a moral law, “a shared grasp of right and wrong” that Wolterstorff contends “makes democratic politics possible.” The Reformed tradition also places emphasis on “total depravity,” the concept that everything is marked by the fall; “no aspect of our humanity is not subject to corruption.” Wolterstorff suggests that the recognition of a moral code that applies to everyone and an understanding that everyone is flawed should lead us all to approach politics with what he calls “cautious hopefulness.” This distinctive phrase is a helpful descriptor for how evangelicals, like all their Christian brothers and sisters, could approach politics. It is unwise to place too much faith in a fallen, human institution like government (the “caution”), yet government can serve the common good in many ways (the “hopefulness”).
Neo-Calvinism also emphasizes a holistic view of religion as a comprehensive way of understanding the world. Most evangelicals would agree with Wolterstorff that “being a Christian incorporates a distinct comprehensive interpretation of life and reality, a distinct worldview.” If this is indeed the case, then it follows that Christian faith affects all aspects of believers’ lives, including their political activity.
Another emphasis in neo-Calvinism, principled pluralism, charts a helpful path for navigating deep political differences and governing effectively in a diverse society. This approach acknowledges that various political actors have different worldviews and seeks to find a way to incorporate these perspectives into politics. Some political actors want to relegate faith to the private sphere, arguing that religious beliefs should not inform politics. Others want their preferred particular worldview to dominate. Principled pluralism disagrees, contending that people of faith can and should participate in public life alongside everyone else as equal contributors. A vibrant pluralist democracy allows people with differing worldviews, religious or otherwise, to express their beliefs and concerns, participate fully and equally in public life, and work together for the common good. Those with deeply held religious commitments are accepted and respected alongside those with distinctly secular outlooks.
Wolterstorff also highlights the importance of compromise for a well-functioning democracy. Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-partisan context, many elected officials (and many voters!) are no longer willing to seek political compromise, especially if it includes working across party divides. Politicians and activists often speak as if politics is a zero-sum game in which one side wins and the other loses, posturing for the cameras to upset their constituents and stoke fear. But many political decisions are not winner-take-all; on most policy issues, elected officials evaluate a range of options and weigh strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, making minor tweaks in some areas and more major changes in others. Such multi-faceted policymaking makes room for a wide range of viewpoints and opens opportunities for negotiation and bipartisan compromise. Christians should be leading the way in such discussions, bringing people together with a spirit of mutual respect to weigh alternatives, consider a range of policy options, and resolve conflicts peacefully.
Toward a Politics of Civility, Fairness, and Empathy
Wolterstorff speaks welcome words in this era of hyper-partisanship and civic distrust. He wisely points Christians away from a politics of fear and anger. His final section calls Christians to political activity marked by the virtues of civility, fairness, and empathy, encouraging political engagement that seeks the good of others and honors the inherent dignity of all humankind. What might such a politics look like? Although this list is not meant to be exhaustive, I will expand on Wolterstorff’s discussion with four practical ways Christians can model Christian principles in political activity.
1. Practice a politics guided by virtue and love for neighbor
Much of contemporary politics is marked by “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy,” vices Paul warns against in Galatians 5.6 Paul points believers in a different direction, urging them to live as those guided by the Spirit, bearing “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”7 These virtues should characterize how followers of Christ approach politics.
The commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves should direct all political activity. A good place to start is by treating others in politics the way we would want to be treated, showing respect, listening attentively, and responding to others with gentleness, not anger. The Golden Rule applies when talking about politics with others, reaching for a device to post on social media, or responding to the latest news. Before speaking or acting, Christians should ask: does this demonstrate love for neighbor? When evaluating policies and candidates, consider how different alternatives are likely to affect others, especially the most vulnerable. Will a proposed policy promote the common good? Who stands to gain the most, and who is most likely to lose? Does a candidate seem to uphold human dignity and want people and society to flourish or is he or she motivated by hatred and selfish ambition?
2. Seek opportunities to interact with and learn from those who hold different views
As we have seen, negative trends like affective polarization are growing, and cultural cues foster distrust and even hatred of those with differing views. Political messaging often assumes the worst of political opponents and encourages the public to make hasty, typically negative, judgments about them. Political differences tend to overshadow other, more important, societal bonds. Instead of following these destructive patterns, Christians should extend grace to those who hold differing views and interact with them with empathy, love, and respect.
Upon discovering potential political disagreement with someone, move into a posture of listening and ask them to share how their experiences have shaped their perspective. Learn where they are coming from and why they hold their specific views, looking past deep differences for a time to find shared ideas, concerns, and priorities. Such common ground can be a starting point for discussions of political differences. Holding back questions and listening with empathy builds mutual understanding and opens opportunities to engage in respectful, open dialogue.
3. Make space in churches for charitable discussion of contentious issues
Vibrant, honest political discussion is important, and the church is a great place to encourage careful thinking about complex issues and to help congregants apply biblical principles to major issues of the day. Churches should not implicitly or explicitly align with one political party, but instead make room for people across the ideological spectrum to worship side by side and learn from one another. From her beginnings in New Testament times, the Church has brought together people across socio-economic, ethnic, age, and other boundaries. Likewise, today’s churches can be places that cross social divides and bring together diverse people unified in Christ.
Churches can offer refuge from political storms. In the current polarized and highly charged political environment, many people find it hard to know if and when it is safe to voice opinions, so they may choose silence because it seems the safest route. Ideally, congregants should feel free to tell their stories and share their struggles. When fellowship is robust and meaningful and people know and trust one another, space opens for congregants to share more transparently and ask vexing questions without fear.
Congregational events and programs offer opportunities to model respectful disagreement, make room for honest and open discussion of political differences, and provide spaces for people to express their views where others will seriously listen. Churches can lead by example as places of principled pluralism, where leaders and congregants encourage genuine love for neighbor and build strong communities.
4. Reward thoughtful criticism, respectful political engagement, and compromise
Thankfully, even in a political environment tainted by so much hateful rhetoric and contentious debate, some thoughtful critics remain who offer careful analysis, raise concerns when they see problems, and ask probing questions. Most importantly, some are willing to critique their fellow partisans, respectfully disagreeing with policies and behavior they find problematic with the hope of encouraging change from within. Although space for thoughtful public dialogue has significantly diminished, forums remain for meaningful, critical discussion of political issues. Seek out such writers, follow their work, and commend them for their courage.
Likely one of the best ways to discourage divisiveness is to demand more civil behavior from elected officials. As long as voters reward angry rhetoric at the ballot box, candidates will continue to sow discord. Voters need not respond to fear-mongering. Instead, they can reward candidates and elected officials who seek opportunities to work constructively across party differences and who model respectful political engagement. Christians should lead the way.
As we have seen, much of contemporary American political discourse is marked by hate and fear. Christians cannot expect to change the behavior of others, but they can offer a powerful alternative witness by engaging in politics marked by love for God and neighbor. Nicholas Wolterstorff calls Christians to a politics focused on human dignity, characterized by civility, fairness, and empathy. I have offered four suggestions of practical ways Christians might do this. To borrow Wolterstorff’s term, I am “cautiously hopeful” that American evangelicals can reframe their political engagement in ways that demonstrate respect for fellow humans as image bearers of God and present a positive Christian witness in this divisive political age.
Cite this article
- Shanto Iyengar, Yphtach Lelkes, Matthew Levendusky, Neil Malhotra, and Sean J. Westwood, “The Origins and Consequences of Affective Polarization,” Annual Review of Political Science 22 (2019): 130.
- Pew Research Center, As Partisan Hostility Grows, Signs of Frustration with the Two- Party System, August 9, 2022, https://pewresearch.org/politics/2022/08/09/as-partisan-hostility-grows-signs-of-frustration-with-the-two-party-system/.
- Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, “Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59, no. 3 (July 2015): 691.
- Thomas B. Edsall, “What Motivates Voters More Than Loyalty? Loathing,” The New York Times, March 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/01/opinion/negative–par tisanship-democrats-republicans.html.
- John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck, “A Hard 2020 Lesson for the Midterms: Our Politics are Calcified,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2022, https:// www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/09/16/midterms-2020-election-polarization/.
- Galatians 5:20–21 (NIV).
- Galatians 5:22–23.