The March on Washington reminds us: Christian engagement with politics must be prophetic, not a partisan power-grab

By BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr.

Each day, Christians in the United States decide if and how we will get involved in politics. As uprisings against racism sweep the globe, many of us are joining marches, rallies and protests. Others are speaking at city council meetings, gathering signatures on petitions, voting and lobbying our representatives for change. Some of us may even decide to run for office ourselves.

In our country, Christians have the right (and the responsibility) to engage productively in the public square. This right is guaranteed to all people, regardless of one’s religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Religious affiliation shouldn’t impact our ability to engage in the democratic process. Sadly, though, some Christians reject the Constitution’s vision of responsible and inclusive political engagement. In place of constitutional democracy, they promote “Christian nationalism,” a dangerous ideology that demands Christianity be privileged by the state. This ideology runs counter to the “no religious test” clause found in Article VI of our Constitution, and Christians across the country are speaking out against it.

Christian nationalists seek governmental power to marginalize and suppress other religious and nonreligious traditions. Their movement rejects democracy and authentic Christian faith, seeing both as mere tools to be used in the pursuit of power. Christian nationalism frequently overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to this dangerous ideology: prophetic Christian witness.

While Christian nationalism is grounded in a reckless pursuit of power, Christianity chooses solidarity with the powerless. Instead of resorting to violence and exclusion, it chooses radical inclusivity and revolutionary Christian love. Prophetic Christian witness means that Christians can be our full selves in public.

Importantly, it also allows Christians to share the public square with others. Prophetic Christianity makes space for our religiously diverse neighbors to live out the fullness of their religious or nonreligious beliefs. Christians can hold this space for others, even as we hold to our own theological commitments.

There is a rich history of prophetic Christian witness in the United States, especially in the African-American church. Today, on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I am reminded of three ways that African-American Christians involved with this March exemplified a truly prophetic Christianity:

1. Like Christians involved with the Black Lives Matter movement today, Christians involved with the March worked for transformational, not transactional, change.

The Rev. Dr. Marvin McMickle, who spoke to BJC on the anniversary of Juneteenth in 2015 about religious freedom and racial justice, shared the drive of many ministers who get involved in politics throughout history:

“Many Black clergy got involved in politics, not just as voters, I mind you, but even as those who pursued public office because they saw that the only way they could alter the course of history — so far as their struggle was concerned— was to put their hands on the levers of political power. But they did not do it because they wanted to use the work of the government in order to influence issues of sectarian interest. … In the language of Anthony Pinn, they wanted to let their religious sensibilities inform them in a way that could shape government policies for the welfare of the underprivileged.”

Instead of furthering Christian power and privilege, leaders at the 1963 March sought to uplift the voices of Black workers hurt by racism and economic injustice. They fought for fair housing policy, voting rights, an end to state-sanctioned racism and segregation and good-paying jobs for all. Instead of promoting power for one religious group, they promoted the power of the people — all of the people.

2. Christians at the March worked alongside people of many faiths and none in their drive for transformative change.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now-famous “I Have A Dream” speech, prominent labor leader A. Philip Randolph stood at his side. Randolph, one of the March on Washington’s main organizers, was an atheist, a fact often overlooked in popular retellings of the event. Another of the March’s main organizers, Bayard Rustin, grew up Quaker. We also should never forget how Jewish leaders and community members spoke at and helped organize the March.

This cooperation shows that faith communities can live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions. Many Christians at the March, Catholic and Protestant alike, understood that their liberation was intimately connected to the liberation of their religiously diverse neighbors. This understanding is at the heart of a truly prophetic, inclusive Christian witness.

3. The March’s organizers understood the importance of church-state separation.

Until his death last month, Rep. John Lewis was the last living speaker from the March on Washington. In 2017, when Christian nationalists tried to tear down the wall of church-state separation in a failed effort to remove the long-standing Johnson Amendment from the Tax Code so churches would endorse candidates, Rep. Lewis had this to say about the Civil Rights Movement:

“Our movement was never about a party or a candidate. We came together because of our shared values: our hopes, our dreams, our families, community, country, and for the world. People of all races, all religions, and all walks of life were united by a moral purpose for a shared mission, a shared vision.”

Rep. Lewis, like his fellow Christians in the Civil Rights Movement, knew that Christians must be political and prophetic without being partisan. His words echoed those of Dr. King, who called on the church to be “not the master or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.” Too often, excessive entanglement between the church and the government restricts the church’s ability to speak boldly against unjust laws and policies.

Today, as we face a presidential election, global uprisings against racism, and the intertwined threats of white supremacy and Christian nationalism, Christians can follow in the footsteps of the prophetic Christian organizers who came before us. Instead of seeking domination and exclusion through Christian nationalism, we must fight for the oppressed and marginalized through Christian solidarity. This prophetic witness allows all people to live and thrive in a vibrant and inclusive democracy.

Charles Watson Jr. is the director of education at BJC.

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