By Walter R. Strickland II, Special Advisor to the President for Diversity & Instructor of Theology, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
I am encouraged by the increased desire to cultivate God-glorifying diversity in the Southern Baptist Convention. As the desire for racial understanding grows in our ranks, we will be driven to have loving conversations that have proven to be volatile in broader culture. It is common knowledge that discussing religion, politics, or race are three ways to successfully end a pleasant dinner with friends or family. But if we’re serious about racial diversity, we’re going to have to grapple with the intersection of these three realities.
The American political landscape is growing increasingly difficult to navigate. As a result, the complexity of the political landscape drives well-meaning Christians (and non-Christians alike) to simplify their trip to the ballot box by reducing their vote to a single issue. For Christians, single issue voters are often swayed by matters that are considered to be issues of life and death.
Not all Christians agree, however, on which issues are most clearly “life or death.” Division emerges within the church because individuals raise their single issue, among other legitimate life and death concerns, as the standard for what it means to be a Christian in the voting booth. Consequently, believers judge fellow Christians on the basis of their single issue, and in extreme cases question the legitimacy of others’ faith in Christ.
This type of dissonance begs the question, “How can a people who believe in God’s authoritative Word be so divided?” There are several dynamics at play, but one which is increasingly apparent is race. Race continues to be an important variable that shapes life in America. Single-issue voting practices are shaped by the life experience of the voter. Since different racial groups bring different societal experiences to the public square, the life and death issues they consider central generally vary.
For example, white evangelical voting patterns often demonstrate a passionate concern to protect life in the womb—as well they should, for this is a clear battle for human life. African-American evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to approach politics with a a deep concern for systemic racial justice (such as racial profiling and police brutality) because, as we have seen afresh in recent months, systemic racism is a life or death issue. Hispanic evangelicals and other immigrant populations, however, have a justified concern about immigration reform because circumstances surrounding immigration and deportation can very quickly become life or death situations for them.
Each of these concerns are life and death issues. But for single-issue voters, the issue that touches your life the most intimately is going to guide your voting practices and your assessment of others. This state of affairs is exacerbated because there is rarely a candidate or party who champions a holistically Christian platform, encompassing each of the concerns listed above. Voters are forced to make difficult decisions when voting that results in disunity, despite maintaining a unified concern of protecting life.
My hope is to provide a simple action step to mend the political divides that mark God’s people. This process begins by having an intentional conversation with a brother or sister in Christ whom you respect and will likely vote for a different candidate than you (if you don’t have a friend that fits this criteria, that is part of the difficulty). This dialogue must begin with the assumption that your brother or sister is not crazy for standing on a different side of the political aisle than you do, but understanding that there are legitimate reasons for their political affiliation that you may need to consider.
Here are three questions to help guide your conversation:
- What is the most important issue to you in this election cycle and why?
- How does your candidate address your concerns?
- What issues are part of your candidate’s platform that you are uneasy about?
Although some disagreement may (in fact, almost certainly will) remain about whom to vote for after the conversation is over, everyone should have gained an expanded understanding of what it means to be pro-life and have a better understanding about how each person’s vote is intended to honor the Christian value of preserving life. Finally, the civility that characterizes this exchange is an example to a watching world of brotherly love across partisan lines and a display of the unity that Christ died to bring about among his people.
Our political positions matter. Our racial backgrounds matter. But if we are in Christ, we have a unity that transcends both politics and race. Let’s show a watching world how to care deeply about politics, while caring more about the gospel.