I know a lot of people personally who love Jesus, who would tell you that their only hope is in him and what he accomplished on their behalf, who lead their families lovingly, serve others selflessly, and partner with their churches faithfully. The problem is that you would never know any of this based on what they choose to post on the internet.
I do not question the sincerity of so many who I know to be genuine followers of Christ and ardent lovers of truth and grace. Nevertheless, I do wonder why the topic that really seems to get them most excited on social media—the thing that they put forward as the public obsession of their lives—is partisan politics.
In 1801, a British pastor named Andrew Fuller (1754 – 1815) was perplexed by the same problem. In a short book called The Backslider, Fuller explored the causes behind a person who had “once appeared to be zealous, affectionate, and devoted to God” but who had now lost that former zeal. According to Fuller, one of the main culprits was “taking an eager and deep interest in political disputes.”
The problem, for Fuller, was not politics, for he certainly understood the God-ordained necessity of government in a sinful world. Fuller had no problem with Christians participating in the political process as concerned citizens. What mystified him was the way many Christians of his day became inordinately obsessed with politics—it becoming, in his words, “their meat and their drink.”
Following the American theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), Fuller located the very core of a person’s religious devotion in the affections. Affections are the inclinations of the soul, informed by knowledge, that provoke a person either toward some object or away from it. Affections are what drive people to act in the ways that they do.
Stronger and more permanent than emotions, a person’s affections will be manifested positively in love, desire, hope, joy, and gratitude toward certain objects, and negatively in hatred, fear, anger, and grief away from other objects. For Edwards and Fuller, these inclinations of the will reveal the true devotion of the soul.
Having the core of one’s affections oriented toward God is the primary distinguishing mark of a Christian. A genuine Christian, in other words, will be driven by affections of love and desire toward God and the things of God. Someone who does not follow Christ will be driven in their affections either toward things that are forbidden by God or inordinately toward things allowed by God. In other words, affections are disordered, not only by being directed toward evil things, but also when they are directed toward good things out of proportion.
Contemporary author, Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, uses the language of idolatry to describe the same phenomenon, defining an idol as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Keller’s description is helpful in describing how even a good gift can be latched onto as a God-substitute.
Fuller believed that what was driving so many in his day toward coldness in their affections toward God was inordinate enthusiasm—even obsession—with political happenings. He saw in politics a distinctive power over the human imagination that uniquely competed for ultimate supremacy within the soul.
Listen to how he described the process: “When a man’s thoughts and affections are filled with such things as these [politics], the Scriptures become a kind of dead letter, while the speeches and writings of politicians are the lively oracles.” For those obsessed with politics, the glorious realities of Christ and his kingdom become uninteresting. The good news of the gospel loses its luster in the ever-changing spin cycle of Fox News and CNN.
One of the minor side effects of COVID-19 has been more time spent online for just about everyone. I confess that I have spent more time online in the past three months than during any other three-month period in my life. During this time—and certainly precipitated by tragic civic unrest—I’ve come to believe that many professing Christians rely on partisan politics to provide the primary paradigm through which they see the world.
I am sometimes fearful that the voices of Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, and Rachel Maddow carry more weight for many Christians than the voice of the prophets, apostles, and their pastors. I’ve come to the sad realization that every time I make a contemporary application from the gospel to cultural implications, people are sizing me up politically as if being a partisan of Jesus is insufficient.
But when we blindly follow the agenda of party over the values of the kingdom, we are in danger of making politics our functional god. When our public discourse parrots the talking points of blue or red rather than the radical call of neighbor love, we are in danger of losing the credibility of our witness. When the tone of our discourse matches the spewed hatred that has come to polarize our nation, we can no longer claim to be representing the Way of Jesus.
So how do we carry ourselves politically? Fuller spoke with characteristic wisdom on that issue as well: “If a wise man wishes to gain over a nation to any great and worthy object, he does not enter into their little differences, nor embroil himself in their party contentions; but, bearing good-will to all, seeks the general good: by these means he is respected by all, and all are ready to hear what he has to offer. Such should be the wisdom of Christians. There is enmity enough for us to encounter without unnecessarily adding to it.”
The gospel is offensive enough, so let’s allow people to be offended by it. When we replace the gospel with politics in our affections, we will draw the battle line in the wrong place and drown out the mesmerizing voice of Jesus beneath tired drone of petty partisan squabbles. We must not allow our political alliances to block the path to the only one who has the words of life (John 6:38).