Bruce Ashford, Provost and Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, discusses how Christianity applies to the many facets of public life and how we as Christians can bear witness to our faith in ways that contribute to the common good.
Thank you for joining us for this week’s Focus on Faith edition of Family Policy Matters. Today, I am very please to have as my guest a man who is uniquely qualified to discuss how Christianity applies to the many facets of public life and how we as Christians can bear witness to our faith in ways that contribute to the common good.
Dr. Bruce Ashford is Provost and Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author or co-author of six books, including, Letters to an American Christian, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians, and One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics. His personal blog, Christianity for the Common Good, is full of delightful insight and conversation on this and many other important topics.
Dr. Bruce Ashford, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.
BRUCE ASHFORD: Pastor Thomas, it’s great to be on the show today and I look forward to talking.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Wonderful. Let me just dive in here, Dr. Ashford and talk about the intersection of faith and public life. I think it is important to hear and to see stories of individuals and how they have come to be the people they are. Tell our listeners please, a little about your life story from childhood to adulthood, and particularly the role that faith played in molding you into becoming the man and leader you are today.
BRUCE ASHFORD: Thank you for that question. First of all, I credit my parents—godly parents who taught me to love and respect God’s word. Their teaching of me and my reading of the Bible really got a hold of me when I was a teenager, and I think that’s when I came to faith. Early on in college, I was very involved—sort of—at the intersection of Christianity and politics. At that time in my life, I became very cynical and disillusioned because of things that I saw happen behind the scenes and I sort of walked away from the whole thing. But in recent years, as I’ve been teaching here at the seminary and I’ve been in ministry—I was a missionary—God has continued to call my heart back to the public square and to show me that when things get tough, it’s not necessarily the right thing to walk away. And so, I’ve jumped back in to try to honor the Lord in the midst of a very difficult public square situation that we’ve got here in the United States. So thank God that he’s called me back into it and thank you for being willing to talk about these things a little bit.
THOMAS GRAHAM: We hear a lot about the separation of church and state. So in times like these, Dr. Ashford, should Christians turned inward and focus only on building individual virtue and like-minded communities to strengthen and fortify their lives of faith in Jesus Christ? Or is there more?
BRUCE ASHFORD: That’s a good question. Let me divide it into two and just talk briefly about what the proper relationship is between religion and politics, and then the proper relationship between church and state. And I think those two things are a little bit different; they’re not the same question. So, what is the relationship between religion and politics? The Bible defines religion not essentially as the worship of a supernatural deity—That is true religion to worship God through Christ. But religion, in general, is just what everyone does—Atheist or Christian or Muslim, you name it—is that we ascribed “ultimacy” to someone or something. If it’s not the God of Jesus Christ or the law of Mohammed, it can be sex or money or power. We’re all worshipers. And the Bible says that whatever it is we worship, we worship at our heart. And the heart is the central organizer of human existence. And so the point of it is, whatever we’ve ascribed “ultimacy” to, it’s absolutely going to radiate outward into our public life—of course, it’s going to affect our politics. It’s what’s most important to us. And as Christians, we ought not to tie our Christianity behind our back. It’s absolutely no reason to do that. I mean, there may be some times that, you know, we make arguments without using specifically Christian language, provisionally if that helps us to win the day in a discussion or debate. But we ought to allow our Christianity to shape our beliefs, because it’s the best part of us, the part that Christ influences. Now church and state—the organized church is an institution and the state is institution—ought to swim in their own lanes. The government is called to bring justice to the various individuals and communities under its purview, and it ought to keep its tentacles out of the church’s business: Can’t tell us what to teach; Shouldn’t tell us what to teach; and Shouldn’t tell us who to keep as a pastor and who to keep as a member. Vice versa, the local church is not called to put itself in a coercive relationship with the state, and that’s why we don’t have a specific denomination set up as the number one denomination in our country. And so we want to avoid both of those errors. But just like you, I want to encourage Christians. This is a great trust the Lord has given us that we can vote in this country, that we can go to a coffee shop conversation, or a Facebook conversation, or call in on a radio show and make our voice heard. You ought to do that!
THOMAS GRAHAM: What role do civic virtues play in America, and how do they overlap with the traditional Christian virtues
BRUCE ASHFORD: Civic virtues are virtues that we would hope that all of us as Americans would try to exhibit in our lives, whether they’re Christian or not. Just to mention some of those things. All of us should want justice. We should want good laws and good order and that people should conform to that. We want citizens who are honest, politicians who are honest, and yes, that seems an oxymoron sometimes. We’d like an amount of civility. Now people misunderstand civility. Sometimes they think civility means weakness. Civility is not weakness. Civility is the determination to tell the truth, but while we’re telling the truth, to recognize that the people were telling the truth to are people who have dignity—inherent dignity—because they’re created in the image and likeness of God. That’s why I won’t lie about them, tell partial truths about them, mock and demean them, and degrade them. So we can stay in there in the moment and be tough in the public square, and be civil. So these are some of the civic virtues. There are others. We do want to work on developing civic virtues even when other people are not being virtuous toward us, and that’s the toughest time
THOMAS GRAHAM: Dr. Ashford, when it comes to politics, many Christians can tend toward a very, well let’s say, black and white view of the right and wrong way to solve problems. So when we recognize the universality of Christ’s truth, are the answers to political questions always just simply black and white?
BRUCE ASHFORD: They’re not always black and white. And in a 21st century democratic republic where citizens get to argue toward the common good and where we’re as diverse as we are—diverse ideologically and in other ways too—sometimes politics involves hammering out working arrangements. And those working arrangements, like who gets elected or which law gets put in place, they’re usually actually going to be messy. Usually no single one of us is going to get everything that we want, but we’re just going to have to live in the real world God gave to us, instead of an ideal world. Because as happy as I am to live in our nation, this is not Heaven. Since it’s not Heaven, things aren’t always going to be black and white
THOMAS GRAHAM: Dr. Ashford, much of your work focuses on politics and public life, but you also branch out into the important role that institutions like marriage, and activities like work and education play in achieving the public good. I’d love for you to just flesh that thought out a bit more for us.
BRUCE ASHFORD: As believers, sometimes we’re tempted, when we want to see change in our country, to put all of our eggs in the basket of short-term activism—and activism is good, it’s not bad. But when that’s the only thing we do, it’s unproductive. Because short-term political activism, number one, limits our witness only to the sphere of politics. Then, short-term means that sometimes we’ll do things in the short term that can hurt us in the long term. So instead of that, let’s take the broad view. Let’s have a significant Christian action and witness in the realm of education, marriage and family, the arts, the sciences, business and entrepreneurship, sports and competition, all of these arenas in which we can enter into, then say: Hey, what would God want from this cultural institution or cultural activity? How has it been corrupted by sin? And then, how can we bring a correction to that which has been corrupted? How can we take—when the institution has been twisted by bad worldviews and by sin—how can we, sort of, enter in and help untwist what’s been twisted? And this is an exciting but also a very difficult thing to do. But we need to lock arms and do it for the good of our nation, and even more importantly, as a witness to our Lord.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Amen, I couldn’t agree with you more. Now, I know that some Christians have debated in recent elections over abstaining from voting when one thinks that there are no good options. As we approach Election Day 2018, which is just around the corner, how should Christians view the American tradition of considering voting to be a duty?
BRUCE ASHFORD: I agree with that tradition. I think it is a very good thing and even view it as a responsibility that if we live in a nation where our voice and our vote count, even if we’re a small voice—all of us are a small vote in a very large country— we ought to vote. I think usually that vote is going to be given to a major party candidate because we have two major parties. Our Founding Fathers never envisioned, or wanted there to be two major parties, but that’s what we’ve got, and so usually, almost always, my vote has been for a candidate of one of those parties. There might be a time to vote for a third party candidate or someone from another party, but the point is this: If we’ve got a great trust of being a Christian witness and wanting to shape our nation’s cultural institutions, and especially as political institutions, than voting is absolutely central to that.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Dr. Ashford, allow me to ask you to express your view with respect to pastoral involvement. I know that there’s a great amount of interest among a good percentage of pastors, to be sure, that their people are registered to vote and so forth. What about bringing this into the local congregation and making it possible for members of churches to, in fact, registered to vote, and so forth. Have you had any experience with that, and is that something that you feel should be endorsed?
BRUCE ASHFORD: Yeah. Good question. I think the rule of thumb is that the local church—let me give a general rule of thumb that I’ll apply it specifically to your question—is that a pastor in a pulpit wants to make sure that when he says, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” that whatever he says is the actual Word of God. That’s why we teach the Bible and we don’t often make application to 21st century political public policy issues. Sometimes we can make application to public policy. I say abortion is a good example of that. But often things are more tricky, more complicated, and our political opinions come out in places other than the pulpit, in the local church setting. But you know, in getting people to register to vote, I don’t see that as harmful to the local church. It’s not like you’re forcing people to register in one particular party, right? You’re just saying: Hey listen, this is a great way to exercise your Christian faith, so why don’t you register? So I don’t see a problem with it at all
THOMAS GRAHAM: And pastors that might be a bit reluctant to engage this way, or to encourage this kind of activity, would you have a recommended response to these pastors?
BRUCE ASHFORD: I think pastors are good willed—they’re almost always good willed. And what they’re after is, they don’t want the local church to look like the action arm of some public policy institute. I would start by affirming that, but then just say: Listen, there’s got to be an appropriate way that you could encourage people to get involved in voting. Maybe you have the sign-up somewhere other than the church property, if you need it to be. Or maybe you make sure that it’s not on a Sunday morning, another time during the week, if you’re worried about that. But in encouraging people to vote, you’re not being a political partisan.
THOMAS GRAHAM: That’s excellent. Excellent. Dr. Ashford, how can Christians approach controversial topics in the public conversation in ways that are winsome and engaging, without sacrificing Truth?
BRUCE ASHFORD: I think the good rule of thumb is that we want to exhibit Truth and Grace at the same time. When I talk about Truth, I mean delivering the truth content of the Christian worldview. When I talk about Grace, I mean having the sort of disposition that Christ had, that he didn’t demean and degrade the people with whom he discussed and debated. He treated them with dignity, as created in the image and likeness of God, even if he had to say some pretty sharp Truth to them. We’ve got to do that. Truth without Grace makes us political bullies and jerks. Grace without Truth makes us wimps and non-entities. But Truth and Grace together is a powerful combination. It’s a combination that our Lord exhibited that we want to exhibit.
THOMAS GRAHAM: We’re just about out of time, Dr. Ashford, but before we go, where can our listeners go online to learn more about your work and your writings on these and so many other important topics?
BRUCE ASHFORD: Thank you so much. Let me mention two places you can go to Amazon.com to purchase any of my six books, but especially the most recent one, Letters to an American Christian, which was written for the same kind of people that listen to this podcast, people like you and me, Letters to an American Christian, is the name of the book, And then second, bruceashford.com and I blog there regularly on social, cultural and political issues, and how we might shape those in light of our Christian faith.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Fantastic. Well Dr. Bruce Ashford, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters,and for all you do. Carry on and God bless you, my friend.
BRUCE ASHFORD: Thank you so much, Pastor Thomas. It’s been great to be on the show.
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