From the beginning, Christianity Today was seen by its founders as something quite apart from just another combatant in a culture war. They would speak the truth, and sometimes they would annoy all the right people, but their goal was to convince others to see the wisdom of their position and not just add to the cacophony. This spirit of what we might call engaged neutrality was to be a feature of CT’s worldview. Different editors and writers have come and gone, different priorities have been emphasized, but the primary goal has remained the same: to keep readers informed about the pressing concerns of the day in light of the eternal truth of God in the Bible.
Achieving this goal is particularly tricky when it comes to politics, especially given the warning to teachers from James 3:1. Rarely is the tension of Christ’s call to be in the world but not of it quite so clear as when believers consider their role in public affairs. Are we to remain above the fray, knowing that God’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36)? Or are we to become involved in the mess of life, loving our neighbors by seeking the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7)?
These are not easy questions. And, contrary to our earnest hopes, the Bible refuses to give us simple answers. Rather, the Scriptures provide us with a dual answer. To live as faithful Christians in the political world means keeping our heavenly citizenship first in our hearts before any earthly kingdom. At the same time, we are to live in the place of God’s calling, fully invested in our families, communities, and nations as citizens of these lesser realms. Our loyalty to our Heavenly Father can never be compromised by our duties to any temporal prince, but neither can our spiritual calling become an excuse for failing to “honor the emperor” in appropriate ways (1 Pet. 2:17). This means living in the already-but-not-yet of a world that is not as it ought to be, and cannot be now what it one day will be, but for which we are still called to work to see it become as good as it can be.
The Christian’s call is to live with this dual citizenship—always subject to proper authorities within contingent limits but never allowing the state to claim itself as final arbiter of truth and morality.
For Americans, this tension is exacerbated by an endemic spirit of chosen-ness. Some citizens of the Land of the Free go so far as to declare the United States to be a covenant nation, a New Israel, in special relationship to God, but even those who deny this in principle cannot easily escape in practice the founding myths of our forebears. Whether we see America as uniquely good or especially evil, Americans are keen to view their nation as being under the unique gaze of God, whitewashing its failures to the point of innocence or highlighting them as viler than the evils of others.
For editors and writers at Christian magazines seeking to impart discernment to their readers about the headlines they witness each day, maintaining an awareness of this tension is paramount. Those at CT had to pay special heed to these concerns as their fortunes rose with the rising tide of evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s and the decades that followed. Associated as closely as they were with Billy Graham, the most visible member of the evangelical movement, any statement on their part about politics reflected in the minds of many Americans what evangelicalism itself intended.
Questions over the role of the state, the Christian’s responsibility in society, conflicts both domestic and foreign, and the moral crises facing the church—all of these remain as central to our political lives today as they did at the height of the Cold War. We would do well to listen to our older siblings as they wrestled with them in their time, if we are to be wise in our own.
This post is adapted from Timothy Padgett’s introduction to Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicalism (Lexham Press, 2020).