Young Christians grappling with broadened political views

Friday, October 31, 2008 | 5:07 p.m. CDT; updated 9:10 p.m. CDT, Saturday, November 1, 2008

COLUMBIA — With the presidential election just days away, many Americans are looking toward a new president and a new direction. But some Christians in Columbia and across the nation grapple with what it means to pledge their allegiance to a higher authority.

Their faith requires them to live differently, but the question remains: What does it look like to be a Christian, and an American?

To learn more about 'Jesus for President'

Shane Claiborne will be speaking at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the Mabee Chapel of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.  He will also be on the campus for lectures at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 and 10 a.m. on Nov. 19. The focus of his conversations will be on Jesus, the church, and social justice. More information can be found on the university's Web site at, or by calling (417) 328-5281.

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Authors Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw address the topic in their recent book, "Jesus For President." Campus ministries such as Veritas and The Rock in Columbia also joined the discussion, which is undergirded by a surprising trend shown in national surveys and polls.

Young Christian voters are not voting the way their parents or grandparents have and are looking at politics in a whole new light.

"There's been more discussed and debated about what younger evangelicals are thinking right now than ever before," said Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and director of MU's Center on Religion and the Professions. In the past, Mason said, evangelicals have represented an estimated one-fourth of the U.S. population, and new growth and new styles of worship have altered this group more than any other Protestant denomination.

"People are aware there's something different about this generation," Mason said.

The Polls

Poll data could be interpreted  to show that the youth are at the forefront of a trend. Mason said this segment of young evangelicals are simply reflecting the larger movement, not vice versa. "This effect on different views is not limited to youth at all," she said. "I don't think the youth are in positions of power on national and world levels to be catalysts of this change."

The larger movement, she said, centers on the long tradition of pairing social justice issues with Christianity.

"There have been times when certain social justice issues have had more resonance than others," Mason said. "We may be seeing a new social gospel."

The Platform

Wars. Destroying the Earth for its resources. A materialistic culture. Disrespect for life. These are a few of the issues caught up in the complex struggle of being a Christian and a U.S. citizen.

In their book, Claiborne and Haw offer help for others trying to find their way. Claiborne is also founder of The Simple Way, a non-profit organization focused on living simply and a community of people in Philadelphia living together. Haw is a theologian.

They use Scripture to show the character of Jesus, and through him, God. They write about living counter to the culture and how Christ's lessons are still relevant today — and how they have faded.  The word "Christian" means Christ-follower, the authors note.  "Calling (Jesus) Messiah or Lord is like acclaiming him — unlikely as it is — as president," they say in the book. A president that, they say, would not be wearing a "God Bless Rome" T-shirt or promoting a $100 million dollar election campaign.

Claiborne and Haw say the answer to more Christ-like behavior in politics is found by looking to Jesus. "His politics," they write, "aspired to something different from state power."

Claiborne and Haw saw Jesus as a spokesperson for right living, not just right thinking. In their book, they write: "It's easy to have political views — that's what politicians do. But it's much harder to embody a political alternative — that's what saints do."

One example the authors used was that those who vote pro-life "had also better be ready to take in some teen moms and adopt some unwanted babies."

The People

Members of two MU campus ministries, Veritas and The Rock, spent significant amounts of the summer considering what their role in the upcoming presidential election should be and what beliefs should guide their decisions.

Veritas, a college branch of the Columbia church The Crossing, held a book reading and discussion of "Jesus For President." MU junior Patrick Miller, 21, spearheaded the event.

As an intern for Veritas, it was Miller's job to pick a book for a summer meeting of Project: Columbia. When he saw the name Shane Claiborne on the binding, he pulled it off the shelf at the public library immediately. He hadn't read it, but he knew it was just what the ministry was looking for.

"We didn't want to agree wholly with something. We needed to have the opportunity to say, ‘This is good,' and also, ‘I don't know about this,' " he said.

From Miller's point of view, the authors argued that Christians should transform politics from the outside. It seemed the authors argued that a Christian holding office is too much, he said.

"After I read the book, I seriously considered not voting," he said. "I kind of came to believe voting put my hope in the wrong thing."

But after taking time to digest the issues the book and the discussion raised, Miller said he came to realize that voting, for him, was not about putting his hope in a single nation, a single politician.

"I believe the Gospel has implications for every sphere of life," Miller said. And that includes politics.

"People imply our votes are going to condemn America to hell or bring about a new earth," he said. "That's ridiculous."

Instead, Miller approaches the election looking at how he believes things will change best. "Some social issues are hot buttons for Christians, but the president has much more input on the poor and on other nations."

After reading the book, Miller said he thinks more about how the U.S. treats other nations.

"I came away understanding America is just one country that God loves greatly, out of many," he said. "After all, part of the image of heaven is a table where people from every nation sit."

Marty Swant, who is a former Missourian reporter, and Andy Patton were also a part of the Veritas summer book discussion. Although both are being affected by the national election, it is from two very different geographic locations.

Studying abroad in Brussels, Swant has a new perspective with which to think about the election.

"I think about who would be a better representative of the country to the rest of the world," he said. He doesn't want the U.S. to make itself more isolated. And he doesn't believe Christians should be isolated, either.

But where Swant disagrees with Claiborne and Haw is on the idea that they should remove themselves completely from how society governs itself.

"Some people could take (the book) like that, in a way it could encourage not voting," he said. But what he gleaned from the text was something he paraphrased from an interview that Claiborne gave on the publisher's Web site. Swant said, "It's not even about voting; it's about how we need to live out the gospel on November 3rd and 5th."

Swant cast an absentee ballot this year and spent $23.50 to have it shipped overnight back to his home county in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Andy Patton, a campus minister, sees the domestic side of things.

In "Jesus For President," Patton said, the authors came across as considering themselves as outsiders, a prophetic voice showing another way.

However, that other way of radical protesting, said Patton, "seems to be the deep end of cynicism."

That cynicism is one in a range of students' reactions to the book, Patton said.

"There's the politically apathetic, that throw up their hands and walk away," he said. "Then there's the opinionated, those moved by the book to get involved and make a difference."

Claiborne and Haw's particular opinion on politics was not something that Patton agreed with completely. "You don't feel stirred up to get involved, even stirred up to vote," he said. He said the authors portrayed well the general disillusionment with American politics.

Patton said he came out of the discussions with the view that "the political process isn't perfect, but it's what we have. It will only get better if the right people get into it with excellence and integrity — and those with integrity can't stay aloof."

He's on the fence right now about whom to vote for, and he thinks that is a proper place for Christians to be. Patton said, "There is no one party or platform that conforms to everything Christians want to see in the world."

The Rock spent much of the summer discussing what it means to be Christian and American. The discussion arose, in part, because of "Jesus For President," but it didn't center on politics and voting.

That discussion was mainly the idea of Chris Swift, 22, an MU graduate currently raising money to work in ministry full-time.

"I think there is a correlation, to an extent, that Shane draws a lot of parallels with the Roman culture and the American culture," he said.

And mostly what Swift wanted to challenge the group on was the belief that America is a Christian nation.

"It's really assumed by a lot of people, and I'm bothered by that," he said. "Once you go below the surface and talk to people, that's not the case."

Although Swift disagrees with both campaigns' assertions that America is the hope of the world, he said voting is still a responsibility that Christians can uphold.

The Commentary

Many of the issues that younger residents such as Miller, Swant, Patton and Swift are grappling with reflect national trends among evangelical voters. A larger number of younger Christians are no longer "two-issue voters" who vote based only on their stances on abortion and gay marriage, said Debra Mason of the Center on Religion and the Professions.

"This generation is seeing all these other issues they're passionate about and that are affecting their future ... like the environment," Mason said.

This wide range of concerns shows that this year's faith vote may not be as clear-cut as it has been in the past.

"You have to set this generation at where this generation is in time," Mason said. "They're becoming voters where people generally understand that global warming is real. All across the globe, in very real ways, they see poverty and the effects of genocide and pain beyond our borders."

She said, "This is a global generation."

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