In this episode, we navigated the tension-filled landscape of politics and faith, discussing the church’s role and its interaction with government while maintaining the principle of collective good. Ron Sanders, is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary. His field of research is the intersection of religion and public policy—especially the relationship between the Christian Tradition and the Democratic Tradition in America. Ron provided some crucial insights on nonpartisan participation, the role of our educational institutions, and how to approach politics as Christians. He also shared some remarkable facts about his journey to understanding Christianity’s place in politics. Listen now to dissect the prophetic politics of faith, only on The UpWords podcast.
As always we invite you to leave us a rating on your favorite podcast app or send us a comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
00:05:24 Israel is a light to other nations.
00:06:54 God’s covenant, church’s global witness, Christianity and democracy.
00:10:54 Christians seeking prophetic distance from political parties.
00:15:31 Community collaboration to address societal challenges effectively.
00:17:58 Church involvement in politics for informed decision-making.
00:21:18 Lack of nonpartisan participation in politics explained.
00:27:45 Gen Z, takes an active and informed role in politics.
00:31:22 University officials help students navigate societal issues.
Credits: Music by The David Roy Collective, audio engineering by Jesse Koopman, graphic design by Madeline Ramsey.
Ron Sanders [00:00:03]:
A couple things are happening. One, it seems like the invitation to Jesus is open to all, no matter their starting point. And then second, in the New Testament, there are political parties in the Jewish community and they are aligning in certain ways in relationship to the Roman Empire. And I don't find Jesus fitting into any one specifically. Right. There's a little bit of something from each one of them that he might do every once in a while. And then there's a criticism.
Daniel Johnson [00:00:38]:
Hello and welcome to Upwards. I'm Dan Johnson. Today I welcome Ron Sanders to the podcast. He's an author assistant professor for Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and on staff with crew at Stanford University. He's been at Opera House the last few days giving lectures on politics in the church and also leading workshops for campus ministry staff. In this episode, I'm talking with him about how Christians should think about politics and how to develop a theological framework around politics. Please enjoy my conversation with Ron Sanders. So, Ron, you've done a lot of work around Christian ethics and specifically in religion and public policy.
Daniel Johnson [00:01:25]:
Want to just talk a little bit about your background. You did a PhD in this area. How did you jump into this field? Like, why was this such a point of interest for you? Where did you get this interest? How does this even post the PhD played out in your day to day work?
Ron Sanders [00:01:45]:
Sure. Yeah. It's been great to be with you all this past couple days. This is my first time visiting Madison and y'all have been so great, and it's been fun to interact with your community and the different campus communities, Christian communities on campus. So, yeah, it's been really great. To answer your question, I got into this conversation really as I was working on my master's degree at Bible University, Talbot School of Theology, and I was studying philosophy of religion and ethics. I kind of drifted in the ethics direction and I did an independent reading on Reinhold Nieber. And so that got me thinking about politics and how Christian faith relates to politics.
Ron Sanders [00:02:32]:
Then I went up to Stanford University to work with crew there. And after about five or six years, I started a PhD program. And part of my focus of the PhD program was to do some more research. And I originally intended to maybe write my dissertation on Niebuhr and his approach to politics and how maybe he and his brother were a little bit different and some of those things. But I got a little more interested in what we were doing as an evangelical community in relationship to politics. Some of it wasn't super satisfying to me. Some of the ways that we were talking about it. But I thought that is such an important topic.
Ron Sanders [00:03:20]:
We live in a democracy. The democracy has invited us into the conversation about what's important. What are the goods in society? How do we distribute those goods justly to our citizens and our guests? And so I got really interested in that conversation. And then, like I said last night when we were talking about this, I also thought that there was, when I was talking about my faith, just my personal faith with people, in my work, with crew, and just in my normal life, that what I noticed was that people were really interested in Jesus, or at least neutral about Jesus. And then when it came to the Christian tradition or Christian religion, they had a negative kind of reaction to it. And I'm like, where did this negative reaction come from? And so that's kind of one of my hypothesis. Maybe how we as evangelicals have talked about or approached politics. Maybe that has contributed to that gap in perception between Jesus and Christianity as a religious tradition.
Ron Sanders [00:04:23]:
Religious traditions aren't really in vogue right now. Most of the statistics say that people are leaving established religions, even though they might not be leaving their spiritual relationship to those religions, but they just don't want to be a part of some of those practices or be identified with some of that stuff. Yeah, that's what kind of motivated my research, and I thought it was intEresting. I think it's important. And I've kind of always liked politics since I was a kid, so I thought it's a nice intersection of my interests, I guess. That's great. Yeah.
Daniel Johnson [00:05:02]:
You talked a little bit last night about Old Testament views around politics and New Testament, kind of the duality of those two things. I thought that was really interesting. I'm wondering if you could unpack that a little bit and take us through kind of maybe those two different mindsets around those two different canons as we look at the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Ron Sanders [00:05:24]:
Yeah. So one of the things that I try to emphasize when I'm speaking is that in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew scriptures, Israel is formed as a nation to be a light unto the nations, right? So the surrounding nations were supposed to look at Israel and see something about God, and Israel is supposed to be a witness to God in that way and how they lived, how they lived according to the laws that God had given to them, how they lived according to the wisdom literature. So that was a really important part of God reflecting himself back into the world through his people, because God has always used a community, or had the notion of using a community to spread the news about who he is. And what life under God's rule might look like. And so that part of it, apart from exile, when Israel went into exile, that's an important aspect of how we, as a community of people who follow God, reflect him back into the world. And so when it comes to then to the New Testament, and the Gospel gets spread beyond just the Jewish community, to the Gentile community as well. And you see that in the Book of Acts, but you see strong hints of that in the Gospels. And if you look back into the Hebrew scriptures, you'll see echoes of, oh, you can anticipate this happening.
Ron Sanders [00:06:54]:
Like God's covenant with Abraham, I will bless you, and you will be a blessing to the nations. And so that blessing to the nations that runs all the way as a theme through the Hebrew Scriptures, comes to bear in the New TesTament as the Gospel goes to the Gentiles. And what happens then is there's not a clear nation state any longer that reflects the glory of God or the wisdom of God and those kinds of things. But it's the Church's presence in every nation as a witness to God. And so that shifts our kind of imagination on how we relate to the political atmosphere. And I think the interesting thing that I couldn't get into a lot last night, because you can only choose so much, is that we have a history in America of a very close association between Christianity and democracy, right? And when the. When the Puritans came to America, one of the reasons that they came was that they thought it was fertile ground for their ideas of what a democracy might look like and some of their frustrations in England, right? And so they had the kind of analogy of leaving England and coming to America, like the ancient Israelites leaving Egypt and coming to the promised land. And so they used a lot of that imagery in their writings when they did that.
Ron Sanders [00:08:27]:
And so sometimes it's really easy to say something like, America is a Christian nation, right? And it comes from some of that imagery of the Puritans. And then if you fast forward to the end of the Second World War and kind of the onset of the Cold War, we get a reimagination of that and a lot of language like that, because the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union, was proclaimed atheist, it was communist, it was socialist, and we were in America defining ourselves in opposition to that. So we're democratic, we're capitalist, and we're Christian. And so you get things like, in God, we trust on the money and one nation under God and the pledge of allegiance, that all comes in the late 50s early 60s. Right. And so you kind of get that kind of language again. And we have to be careful about that language because that's nowhere in the Bible. Right.
Ron Sanders [00:09:32]:
That we're specifically a Christian nation, but we have a lot of Christian heritage. And as I said last night, we might talk about this a little bit more. But that's why one of the reasons I think democracy has worked is because Christianity has some virtues that help democracy carry itself forward. But that's one of the challenges as well, is to think of yourself in that way as kind of a special nation when we as a church have a special role inside of every nation.
Daniel Johnson [00:10:04]:
Yeah. So I hear this term a lot around here, and I don't know if this is just a know, Dane county campus thing, but I hear a lot of Christians talk about feeling like they're political exiles, like they don't land anywhere. They're kind of wandering. Right. I mean, some of the biblical language you were just talking about, when that kind of statement comes up, I'm just wondering about kind of a theological perspective around that. As we're thinking about kind of, you know, two political parties, people not feeling like they're Christians, specifically feeling like they're not landing in a specific area. Is that problematic language? Is that healthy language? I'm just wondering about kind of that language and framing through kind of a Christology lens.
Ron Sanders [00:10:54]:
Yeah, I think that it's interesting way to say that. I think what people are trying to describe is a good thing. It's a tension that they feel not at home within any political party and their entire platform, which I think is generally a good thing because we want to have, as Christians, we want to have a prophetic distance a little bit from each party, because each party, in some ways, the good that they're trying to do is in some ways reflects imperfectly, but reflects something about the kingdom of God. And then in some ways, they don't. The platforms don't. And so we want to have a little bit of prophetic distance to be able to say, right, that's something good, and we want to participate in that, and we want to affirm that, that you're doing good. And then we want to give a criticism of that and we want to maybe reshape or rethink that. And so I don't know that we should always feel totally comfortable within, inside of a party.
Ron Sanders [00:12:05]:
It doesn't mean that you can't be a Republican or a Democrat. It just means that we have a posture that is like yes on these and no on this, and you're probably a Republican because you think that if you took a grand total sum of the yeses, they outweigh the no's, or you're a Democrat for the same reasons. Right. And so, yeah, I think it's an interesting way to say it. I guess I haven't heard people in the Bay Area say it like that. But, yeah, I think it's trying to describe the tension that we should feel a little bit as Christians.
Daniel Johnson [00:12:45]:
So you talked a little bit about a framework of the Christians we should be thinking about politics. You just walk through maybe a few of those ideas around a framework for us to be thinking about it kind of in our day and age. We're in 2023. What does that look like? How should we be thinking about politics and our faith, the tension between those two things?
Ron Sanders [00:13:06]:
Yeah. There's a presidential election coming up in 2024. This usually brings this question a little more acutely into our conversations in the church and in our faith communities. So, yeah, I think the framework that I try to think of is, I use a word prophetic in the way that prophets call people back to faithfulness to God, at least in the Hebrew scriptures. Some of their role was to call people, especially the kings, to the faithfulness to God. And so what I want to say is that the first thing is that the role of government is to do good and to punish evil and kind of to set the boundaries for what is a good life and what is not appropriate to live out. And then we vote on those things, and then the government is supposed to support those. We hold it to that.
Ron Sanders [00:14:04]:
I quoted Romans Chapter 13 last week. You could also quote first Peter chapter two on the role of government, at least the institution of government in every nation state. And so our role is to hold the government to that because that's its God given function. And so we do that by affirming it when it's doing that and doing it well, and then we do it by one, challenging it when it's not doing well at that. And then also, I didn't say a lot about this in the talk, but maybe a little bit more in the Q A. But that our role is not just to challenge it, but where we see the government maybe not fulfilling its mandate, maybe because it just is an imperfect institution. Right. And so what is it? It's attributed to Churchill, but I don't know if we can ever say that it came from him.
Ron Sanders [00:15:01]:
Democracy is the worst form of government except for every other kind. And so it's imperfect at best. And so where the imperfections exist, that's where the church can say, you know, there's a problem here. We know it. We're in our communities. We want to address it. And so we're going to start developing some programs to help take care of this problem. And we don't need the government to take care of that.
Ron Sanders [00:15:31]:
We're going to step in, and we would hope that they would, but we're going to step in as a community. And when I've given this example in Silicon Valley and the church that I go to, or when I give lectures or sermons or something like that, there's a lot of brilliant people. Some of them are brilliant at public policy questions, right? Some of them have made a ton of money, and then some of them are just activists. And let's get those folks together and say, hey, you come up with these ideas. You have the funding, let's help fund them, and then you, the activists, let's go and let's do something. Let's see what our church can do in this community when we see a deficit that the government might not be covering. And I think one of the questions that or one of the things that I think a city or even a campus ministry on campus should hope for is that the administration or the officials, the government officials look at you and they go, we don't agree with everything that you say or everything that you believe, but it would be a deficit to our community if you weren't here. And so we want you to stay because of the good that you do in our community.
Ron Sanders [00:16:50]:
And that would be my hope.
Daniel Johnson [00:16:54]:
Yeah, it's interesting. It brings up a story before I came to upper house, working for a different organization and 2016 election in a staff person writes a letter endorsing one specific presidential candidate, prints it off on letterhead, and sends it out to the entire local donor base. Right? Like, this is the thing. Or a pastor getting up front of a congregation in either 2016 or 2020 getting up and saying, I'm endorsing, or we're endorsing this specific candidate as a church, I think as a Christian, that feels problematic to me. How do we think about. Those are obviously kind of like most extreme instances. Right. But I think the tension between public policy and the pulpit is really interesting.
Daniel Johnson [00:17:50]:
Where do we find kind of our measure, either good or bad, within that structure?
Ron Sanders [00:17:58]:
Yeah. What I hope the church would do is they have people who are involved in politics or people who have studied it or who have interest in it. And my hope would be that they would get a diverse little, small group and say, hey, we're going to take this election and we're going to work through the policies. You know, how you get an election guide, and it has the pros and cons that they would take some of those issues and just work through them and say, hey, this is our best attempt at understanding this in a Christian manner and looking at these proposals, these legislative proposals, these candidates, in a way that we can evaluate whether they're going to fulfill their mandate, number one, and what these legislative proposals, how they're going to contribute to the good and people's flourishing. I would hope that that would be how we address it as a church, to kind of equip the church to make their conscience decisions. Right. And then let the things fall. Because when I go to the election booth, this is what I usually do is before I step into the election booth, well, now I vote.
Ron Sanders [00:19:17]:
Everybody usually votes absentee now. But before I vote, I thank God that I have the opportunity to participate because a lot of people don't have these kinds of opportunities. So I have a small say in what can go on. So I thank God that I have the opportunity to do that. And then when I come out of the voting boot, I confess that I've voted for imperfect candidates and imperfect legislation, and that now I ask God for wisdom to address some of those deficits, because I know that they're coming. Right. Because any candidate is not going to reflect the kingdom of God, nor is any legislation. And so it's going to have some consequences that we as a church need to kind of then address.
Daniel Johnson [00:20:04]:
So going a little bit deeper on that, many evangelical Christians are lining with one political party. We've heard that. We heard that in 2016, we heard that in 2020. Why is that so problematic from a kind of a Christology, theological standpoint in our political kind of landscape?
Ron Sanders [00:20:25]:
Things. Yeah. One of the things that makes it problematic for me as a theology professor and as a minister, a campus minister, is what that communicates to the world is that there's something attached to the person of Christ that makes him unavailable to a wide part of the audience. Whereas when I read the New Testament, a couple things are happening. One, it seems like the invitation to Jesus is open to all, no matter their starting point. And then second, in the New Testament, there are political parties in the Jewish community, and they are aligning in certain ways in relationship to the Roman Empire. And I don't find Jesus fitting into any one specifically. Right.
Ron Sanders [00:21:18]:
There's a little bit of something from each one of them that he might do every once in a while, and then there's a criticism. So, yeah, I think that it's problematic in that way. And then it's also problematic because what I don't hear is when people align with the political party, the criticisms internally from that party or from them to that party. Right. And some honest kind of assessment of, yeah, this might be good, and I agree with this, but this is not good in our platform, because these days it's all about accumulating the power. And one of the things that I think why we don't see as much nonpartisan participation is if you work with somebody on the other side of the aisle or you agree with somebody on the other side of the aisle, you're giving away some of your power. And that's not a good thing in politics. Right.
Ron Sanders [00:22:18]:
If you want to win the day and be the majority and those kinds of things. And as Christians, I think we have to think about that and our power a little bit differently.
Daniel Johnson [00:22:27]:
So last night you had a few different examples of people that kind of the duality between politics and faith and whatnot. One of those Martin Luther King Jr. Wonder if you can do a little bit more of a deep dive on that. Why was he such a good figure for us to think about? Kind of the politics and Christian faith and the intersection between the two of those?
Ron Sanders [00:22:48]:
Martin Luther King Jr. Is a really interesting person in the sense that he wasn't perfect by any means. None of us are right, but he wasn't perfect, and especially as a public figure. But what he did was hold America accountable to its promises. All men are created equal. And he said, this isn't happening yet. He's basically an example of what I tried to say. He wanted to challenge the Institute of the American Government, the institution of the American government, to fulfill its promises and to be faithful to what it's supposed to do.
Ron Sanders [00:23:33]:
And what it was doing was not a good. And so to advocate for that, he reminded them of their promise. He protested that they weren't fulfilling their promise, but he did it nonviolently, and he did it creatively. And when I read the New Testament, I think that reflects at least faithful reading of how to do this kind of. So he's a great example. And then I use the example of Andre Trocme, too, in Les Chambone, France, and their village. He was a pastor in the main church in the village of Les Chambon, and they rescued as many Jews during World War II as there were villagers. So there's a film out called Weapons of the Spirit.
Ron Sanders [00:24:25]:
And it's basically one of the Jewish babies that was born in that community going back and asking, why did you do this? Right. And one of the reasons why they talked about Andre Truckme and Edward Tissue, they were the pastors together, and that they were cosmopolitan pastors in the city before, but they kind of got exiled to Les Chambeaun, which was a rural village, and it was because they were pacifists. Right. And then when they came there, the Nazis had then conquered France, and so they told people not to cooperate with the Nazis when France was beginning to. And so they had a consistent message all the way through. And one of the parishioners of their church called them a minority of two. Everywhere they went, they were a minority of two. Right.
Ron Sanders [00:25:17]:
And they just kept this consistent message through. And then they ended up doing good. And we look back on their lives and say, as a Christian ethicist, we look back on their lives and say, the fruit of their decisions reflected what we see in the pages of the scriptures and their actions. And so that's one of the tests, is the historical retrospective test in Christian ethics. So we look back and say, where do we see something? And with MLK Jr. And with Mantis, you see something positive that reflects the scriptures. And then we look and say, okay, what about it can we learn from? And can we then apply and bring forward to our own day and age?
Daniel Johnson [00:26:06]:
Obviously, campus ministry work. You care deeply about the next generation of people coming up. We do that as well here at Opera House and really care about the institution of the university and the students that are here. Pew Research says that there's going to be seven to 9 million new voters in 2024 that are going to be first time voters. They're going to the ballot box for the first time. What would you say to those folks, first time voters going in in a very probably tension filled political climate that's going to be coming our way in 24? How should they be thinking about stepping into that moment in that time?
Ron Sanders [00:26:47]:
Yeah, I think one is most of them watched some of the contentious parts of the elections in the last presidential election, for sure, in some of our state elections. One thing that I've really appreciated about Gen Z right now, then the next gen is Gen Alpha, is that right? Yeah. I have Gen Z children, so I've kind of watched them grow up a little bit, and some of their instincts are right and they're responding to what they've seen and not liked sometimes. And then sometimes what they've seen and liked for a part of them, I want to say, I think some of your instincts are right and you should just go with them. And then part of it is like, okay, you have these instincts. Some of them are right, some of them wrong, just like everybody. Now let's add some texture to those. Let's make them just not instincts, but do some of the work that it takes.
Ron Sanders [00:27:45]:
Now that you're involved in the political process, do some of the work that it takes to be active and good participants in that process, getting informed, especially about how your faith relates to these questions and stuff. And just don't take the kind of cliche lines. And I think Gen Z is actually decent at that. And so don't take those, but just try to add some texture to some of those instincts and some of them will change as you add texture. Some of them will get stronger. That's the best that I think that I can say is that there's work that needs to be done and put in the work which we all need to do. One of the things that I say to people who are Christians who come to university like Stanford or Wisconsin is, I hate to say this, but you have double the work to do when you come because your role as a Christian is to take the best of the education that you're getting here at Wisconsin or at Stanford or any other university. And then you have to take that and say, okay, now how does this relate to the kingdom of God? So you have to do a little extra work in that.
Ron Sanders [00:28:56]:
And that's what we do as Christians. When Jesus says you're in the world but not of it, it's part of our role in our faith is to be able to recognize some of those.
Daniel Johnson [00:29:08]:
Things that take some know GU Madison is a very interesting kind of dynamic, public funded university. We actually have kind of these two hills and we have a Capitol on one side and Baskin Hill where the chancellor is on the other side of that. So just a very interesting political climate that we're continually in. As we think about the current state of the university and especially around a public university like this, as we're talking, so many of the legislative things that happen literally miles apart from each other have huge impacts into policy, financial, which is a huge part of this. How would you encourage Christians in the academy, whether that be administrators, faculty, those that are kind of the lifeblood, the long term lifeblood of the university, think about their faithful commitment to kind of that landscape in what can feel probably like a contentious, well, I know it feels like a contentious environment, a lot of the times, right?
Ron Sanders [00:30:17]:
Yeah, actually it was 75 degrees yesterday. Is that right? Which is a nice October day. Very here. This is my first time in Madison, so it was beautiful. So I walked most of the between the two places of power here in Madison. I walked that. It's for administrators, and I'm assuming Christian administrators and stuff. And Christian faculty is maintaining the university's mission broadly in helping to educate the next generation, helping them to produce good citizens that participate and contribute to society and for people of faith, helping them understand not necessarily everything to think about these specific issues, but how to think about these issues.
Ron Sanders [00:31:15]:
Like somebody last night said, you didn't tell us anything about any policy or who to vote for.
Daniel Johnson [00:31:22]:
Ron Sanders [00:31:22]:
But I think what you're trying to tell us was how to think about these things. And I think as university officials, that's the role is helping these people who are newly forming their participation in our society, especially through the political process, is how to think about these things, how to be good, contributing citizens, and for people of faith, how that interacts with their faith. So I think it's really important. And sometimes that means taking a stand on certain political issues that they might disagree with, and then sometimes it means supporting some of those political decisions that they might agree with. And then again, going back to the same thing, sometimes it might mean making some creative alternatives for the students and the people that they work with so that some of those things can be experienced. But I think what we're seeing is a really challenging time for universities on how to do those things in a way that maybe honors some of the voices that traditionally have been not heard on campus, and then some of the things that have been done in the past that we need to change for the future. And I think that's a real challenge for the university who prides itself on education and prides itself on free speech and exploring different ideas. And that's one of the tensions that the university is really facing right now, one of the challenges.
Daniel Johnson [00:33:03]:
Ron, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your wisdom around faith and politics. And thank you to our audience for listening. If you want to engage further with Ron, he has been at Upper House the last days and has given a lecture on the intersection of faith and politics. We've recorded the lecture, and it's up on our YouTube channel. You can also pick up his book after the election, prophetic politics in a post secular age anywhere. Get books, go forth, love your neighbor, and do good.