Staying Engaged in Politics
Katie Thompson, Jenny Hyde, Chelsea Maxwell, Morgan Barney, Andrew Whitworth, and Kara Dry
For politically disillusioned Christians, the 2016 election season did not provide the hopeful, inspiring vision for the next era of American politics that many wished it would. Instead, bitter political rhetoric, deep partisan division, and unprecedented political spectacle animated a particularly ugly election season. For many, it was finally a clear invitation to opt out of political life.
This sentiment was perhaps most acutely felt by young adults. For many Christians in this demographic who are committed to pursuing justice for their neighbors, the election confirmed in their minds that politics is not the way to do it. Eager to serve, they turn to their church and parachurch ministries to minister to the most vulnerable.
In my work with Christian college students and young professionals, I often encounter an argument that goes something like this: “My citizenship is in heaven, not here on earth. I will obey laws, and I will vote, but there is no value in trying to accomplish anything for the Kingdom of God through politics. Instead, I will serve through my church.”
While this reaction may be motivated by good intentions, a vision of public justice suggests this is an incomplete approach to loving our neighbors. In a Capital Commentary article, Center for Public Justice CEO Stephanie Summers writes:
Citizenship is our common calling. In calling us to citizenship, God invites us to develop our abilities to accurately discern the well-being of our political communities. In calling us to citizenship, God also invites us to examine the relations of our political communities to those of other nations in God’s world. In so doing, we tangibly respond to God’s calls to do justice and to love our neighbor.
God calls us to citizenship here on earth, exercised for the well-being of our political communities. This requires that we engage the systems of government as part of our pursuit of justice for all.
Yet in our current political climate, with its deep divisions and bitter rhetoric, it can be difficult for college students – and indeed, for college professors and administrators – to see how we can engage in politics in meaningful and impactful ways. What can be accomplished through political involvement today? How can leaders in Christian higher education encourage students – and perhaps even themselves – to remain committed to our call to pursue public justice through political engagement?
The Power of Research in Building Political Awareness
In my work at the CPJ, I’ve had the opportunity to work directly with Christian 20- and 30-somethings who, instead of “opting out” of politics, have committed themselves to pursuing God’s good purpose for our political community – what we call public justice. Last fall Shared Justice, CPJ’s online publication written by and for college students and young professionals exploring the intersection of faith and politics, hired five millennial policy fellows (all of whom are graduates of CCCU institutions) to extensively research and write on three issues of domestic injustice. These fellows are committed to sharing a new and hopeful vision of political engagement with their peers; as part of this article, we have highlighted some of the results of their research, as well as their reflections on how their education at Christian institutions equipped them for these projects. Their work on the policy reports demonstrates a belief that real change can be achieved through political engagement. The issues covered in the reports are often hidden in our own backyard:
- The vast racial and socioeconomic disparities in a juvenile justice system that locks up youth in adult-like prisons;
- The impossible decision that low-income families face when they have a child but their employers don’t offer paid family leave; and
- The devastating impact of payday loans on families and children.
Each report shines a light on the injustice, offers a public justice framework for considering public policy solutions, and provides tangible action and advocacy pathways for readers to get involved.
The reports were not written simply to make readers aware of an injustice. Awareness of injustice is an invitation from God to love others more fully. But responding to God’s good invitation – taking seriously our responsibilities as citizens – likely means something about our lives will change.
Public justice is achieved when the institutions that add to human flourishing each make their fullest contribution. These institutions include families, religious communities, businesses, and schools, among others. When government and citizens commit to pursuing public justice, each of these different institutions is better able to fulfill its right roles and responsibilities. Society flourishes when each sphere is in harmony with the others.
Now, more than ever, we need Christian 20- and 30-somethings committed to the Biblical call to do justice through politics, not just to learn about injustice. We need a generation of Christians committed to a vision of public justice in their communities. This means that we don’t just care about the issues that impact our own interests; instead, we work towards policies that promote the flourishing of our entire community.
Christian college students disillusioned with or skeptical of government can find inspiration in the way their peers have written about issues adversely impacting their neighbors. These reports offer tangible steps for action at both the state and local level, which should come as an encouragement to Christians who may feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the federal policymaking process. There are easily accessible pathways for engagement with state and local officials available to citizens concerned about the wellbeing of their communities.
When citizens abdicate their civic responsibilities, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer. God calls us to a citizenship that contributes to creating publicly just laws that will ensure justice for all people. Let us be a generation eager to serve our neighbors through politics, not absent of it.
The Shared Justice policy fellows exemplify a level of civic engagement that our politics desperately needs. It is our hope that these reports will equip college students with a positive vision for participation in political life for the good of all.
Katie Thompson is the editor of Shared Justice, the Center for Public Justice’s online publication for 20- and 30-somethings. In 2015 Thompson co-authored Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice with Michael Gerson and Stephanie Summers. Along with Kara Dry, she co-authored the Shared Justice policy report, “What Justice Requires: Protecting Families from Payday Lending.” Thompson graduated from Gordon College with a degree in communication arts and a minor in political science
What Justice Requires: Paid Family Leave for Low-Income Families
Throughout my time at Gordon College, I was impressed with the understanding that our vocation is more than a career – it is the sum of the roles to which we are called. For many, one of these roles is raising a family. I personally found the task of diving into paid parental leave fascinating, because I believe it’s one area that has perhaps the greatest influence on our ability to live out our other callings.
As a young professional without children, I found it most surprising how little leave new parents (especially fathers!) take. Even in situations where longer periods of paid leave are available, both men and women shy away from using their maximum benefit because they fear losing momentum in their careers. At the same time, a lack of maternity and paternity leave is one of the main factors contributing to workplace dissatisfaction. I don’t believe that having an identity as a parent should have to harm one’s identity as a worker. If we want to live into the fullness of both of these roles, then our perceptions of paid leave as a society need to change.
Paid parental leave is unique in the fact that it does not have to be a partisan issue. In today’s political climate, where divisiveness and hostility seem to run rampant, we can come together around our interest in healthy families. I encourage students and recent grads to think about the issues within these policy reports and to start having conversations amongst themselves. Having taken an active role in researching one of these issues has made me a more thoughtful advocate, and as a result, I can now play a role in breaking down barriers on both micro and macro levels. We all stand to inherit the policy advances of today. If we miss the moment when these issues are ripe, we are doing ourselves a major disservice.
Jenny Hyde graduated from Gordon College in 2014, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., and works for a consumer rights advocacy group.
Families were woven into the fabric of creation, and these relationships are inherent to human dignity. As I started my research on the issue of paid family leave, I knew that the United States’ approach was vastly different from that of a majority of other countries throughout the world. However, I hadn’t known how low-income families are disproportionately and negatively impacted by the lack of a paid family leave policy. As a result, the policy report that developed was both informative and a call to action to consider the right role of government in enabling people to fulfill their callings as both parents and workers.
My studies at Dordt College were foundational in my approach to this project. At Dordt, I was introduced to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty, where the various institutions in life have their own distinct roles and responsibilities. This reformational perspective has shaped how I have engaged politics as I think critically about the roles, responsibilities, and relationships of societal spheres. My education at Dordt also instilled within me the need to constantly consider whose responsibility it is to care for and protect the vulnerable and hurting people in our local, national, and global communities. Though it was difficult, I wanted to hold the weight of all of these tensions in mind as I engaged research and data, and it was important to me to be intentional about how the conversation was framed. Far too often, we resort to economic arguments to make policy decisions. But paid family leave should not be framed solely around economics or how places of work can benefit from the policy. It must be grounded in the normative importance of families.
I believe that the cornerstone of a strong, healthy society is an informed and participatory people. As a Christian, I am called to respect and honor the dignity and worth of people – all of whom bear God’s image. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to my community. Working on this project and advocating for paid family leave are ways for me to fulfill my role in both spheres.
Chelsea Maxwell is a recent alumna of Dordt College, where she earned a Bachelor of Social Work with minors in political science and sociology. She is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work with a macro concentration from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice.
What Justice Requires: Closing Youth Prisons
Before researching this topic for the Center for Public Justice, I was unaware that youth prisons still existed in the United States, even though I had previously written a piece for Shared Justice on the private adult prison industry. In researching this report, I was surprised to learn that the use of solitary confinement is still a common practice in youth prisons – one of many issues making these prisons a far cry from a system of restorative justice for youth offenders. Because of my research, I desire to see every youth prison in America closed and replaced with community-based alternatives that keep our neighborhoods safe and restore children back to their families and communities.
I am currently pursuing a degree in international studies and community development at Covenant College, which has helped frame my research on this topic. My Covenant education has undoubtedly challenged me to research various political systems and to see how God works in and through them. In our increasingly polarized nation, Christian college students have an opportunity to stand up against the injustices they observe in their communities by taking the time to educate themselves and invest locally. My work on this policy report was a first step in advocating for the end of youth prisons. However, in order for the closing of these prisons to happen, there must be individuals in place who are willing to engage this injustice on a consistent basis. Thus, we must not shy away from engaging in the political sphere; instead, we need to see politics as a platform for positive systemic change.
Morgan Barney is a junior Maclellan Scholar at Covenant College, currently studying International Studies. She co-founded Save Our Sisters, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking in Moldova, and advocates for women trapped in sex slavery.
I have researched and written about the juvenile justice system for Shared Justice in the past, but I knew very little about the mechanics or details of youth prisons. I knew what we would find in our research wouldn’t be encouraging – but I did not set my expectations low enough. I was continually shocked by the injustice that pervades the system, which probably reveals more of my privilege than anything else. For youth prisons, injustice is not an exception to the rule; it is built into the system.
During my time at Taylor University, I realized how integral our faith, our intellect, our work, and our communities are to each other. At their best, Christian colleges and universities teach students to live fully integrated lives, both in how we succeed in living out these ideas and how we grow when we fail at them. Thus, I try my best to bring my whole self to my work, which means bringing along my faith.
When it comes to matters of justice, Christians have a deep well of Scripture and tradition from which to pull. Christians can – and should – be leaders in these conversations. We cannot love our neighbors, especially the most marginalized of our neighbors, if we neglect to engage with the institutions and powers that govern our common lives. Not every Christian needs to be a policy wonk or a card-carrying member of a political party, but we do need to recognize our individual and communal relationship to politics. The question isn’t whether we are political, but how we are political.
Neither the fear nor the despair that characterizes this moment in our political community should be an option for Christians. Our witness is to the Kingdom of God, not any earthly power. Because of this, we do not abandon politics; instead, we bring hope, our calls for justice, and the fruits of the Spirit with us into that space. What a gift for the common good.
Andrew Whitworth is a graduate of Taylor University and an alum of the Trinity Fellows Academy. He lives in Washington, D.C., exploring the role of imagination in politics and working to build flourishing political communities.
What Justice Requires: Protecting Families from Payday Lending
As I started my research on payday lending’s impact on families and became more aware of its harmful consequences, I asked my friends and family if they had heard of it. I was astounded by how few people were aware of an issue that so blatantly targets and takes advantage of low-income borrowers. Although it is easy to find information about the negative individual financial consequences of payday lending, few published sources discuss the detrimental effects of this practice on children and families.
My Gordon College education has equipped me to approach this issue from a distinct perspective. As Christians, we are commanded to help the poor and to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves; we are called to be seekers of justice. Furthermore, when seeking a solution to the problems we encounter, it is important that we have a firm understanding of what God intends for his creation. In my studies of both business and psychology, I grappled with the purpose of business and with what it means to have healthy familial relationships according to what Scripture demands. I also considered how a lender should operate, as well as how God intended our families to flourish. From this background, I saw injustice in the payday lending business model, and I recognized how it was fracturing families.
A vision of public justice offers insight into possible solutions, rightly recognizing the need for government, businesses, churches, families, and individuals to all fulfill their right roles and responsibilities. As college students and recent graduates stepping out into this chaotic and broken world, we have a responsibility to be aware not only of the issues that directly affect our immediate circles, but of those that are causing harm to people we will never meet. As citizens, we must recognize that part of our common calling involves loving our neighbors, known and unknown, through political engagement.
Kara Dry is a senior at Gordon College studying business and psychology. She is challenged by matters of social injustice and passionate about restoring God’s order.