This week, a college student at the back of a crowded auditorium at a church-related school asked me how we could fix our political system. It was a good question: heads nodded all around her. "How can we as Christians change things so that when we come into power we don't repeat the same mistakes?" she asked.
I've been spending two years thinking about this question, and I'd been talking with these students for almost an hour on what I thought was going wrong and how we might fix it. "We've got to stop all the unchristian ways Christians do politics," I said, at last. "We've got to act in such a way that we change the tone of the debate -- and show people how to respect and work with people who differ from us."
Christianity has never been so evident in political ads and discourse as it has been in the primaries and now in the general election, but although most Americans still identify themselves as Christian, we can't even agree on what that means. Christians on the political right insist that if you don't support their social values issues, you can't possibly be following Jesus. Christians on the political left insist that if you don't support their peace and justice issues, you can't possibly be Christian. So it is that both of the primary ways that people associate their religion and their political action have thus become partisan -- and subject to the same bitter and divisive partisan wrangling as secular partisanship.
Over the last two years, I've been writing a weekly column on faith and politics for Patheos and filming a series of videos at the Gladstone Library in Wales on unchristian politics. The conclusions led to my book "Faithful Citizenship."
My biggest discovery in all this time is not that we've been pursuing the wrong issues. It's that the issues are less important than I thought.
My conclusion: the ways we've been doing politics (including the way that I have always done politics) are unchristian. Our process of making decisions that involve our faith and our civic life is flawed almost beyond repair, and our focus on what we consider Christian issues instead of on doing politics in a Christian fashion has brought us to this point of division, rancor and unchristian politics.
As her question suggested, the student was hoping things didn't have to be that way, and in truth, they don't. What I've concluded from my two-year experiment is that the Christian tradition contains theological touchstones that could help us move away from unchristian and divisive politics.
The most important touchstone is what St. Augustine of Hippo called the Two-Fold Commandment of Love: Love God, love your neighbor, and show your love for God through your love for your neighbor.
Augustine would tell us that any action we take, any reading of scripture, any policy we advocate that does not privilege love of God and of our neighbor is unchristian. We see this consensus throughout the Christian tradition, all the way down to the present day, where Pope Benedict issued a recent encyclical on the world-shaping power of caritas or Christian love.
One good way to avoid unchristian politics, then, would be to ask whether a decision is loving toward both God and our neighbors. It is possible to make a moral decision that is not loving. Here in Texas, my governor, Rick Perry, turned down federal funds for women's health care so that he could avoid funding Planned Parenthood. Although I don't take his position, I understand that, for the governor and for many conservative Christians, abortion is an evil that must be stamped out.
But although this action may be morally justified, it is not loving to our neighbors. In defunding Planned Parenthood, thousands of women who have depended on Planned Parenthood for birth control and health care have been affected. Low income women -- neighbors that the Christian tradition tells us need to be taken care of -- are without health care because of this moral line drawn in the sand.
This decision is not loving -- and thus, according to Augustine and the larger tradition -- cannot be Christian, even though it was done in the name of Christianity.
Augustine also teaches us the value of humility, a quality sadly lacking in most exchanges between those on opposite sides of the cultural divide. We are so certain we are right -- so sure that God is with us -- that we don't for a moment consider that the opposition might hold any small part of the truth.
Earlier this year, when the media and the blogosphere blew up over the Obama administration's insistence that religious institutions must provide female employees with birth control, Georgetown University, a Catholic institution, was one of those affected. It disagreed with the mandate, given Catholicism's rejection of birth control.
But when a Georgetown student, Sandra Fluke, was savaged by Rush Limbaugh for offering her opinion on the matter, Georgetown's president, Jack DeGioia, spoke out -- not about the moral issue at stake, but about the Christian value of humility:
"St. Augustine captured the sense of what is required in civil discourse: 'Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.'"
Unchristian politics privilege policies over process, policies over people.
But there is nothing Christian about treating others with anything less than love, compassion and respect.
There is nothing Christian about treating others as though all of them are wrong and you are completely right.
There is nothing Christian about refusing to listen to someone else because they might disagree with you -- or you with them.
So in answer to my student interrogator, there is a possible way forward, if we have the strength to take it: Love and humility can be the remedy for our tendency to engage in unchristian politics.
Love and humility offer us a process that might revitalize our civil discourse, heal what is now badly broken, and show the world that Christians are about transformation, not simply about legalism.
We could embrace love and humility instead of insisting that we hold the only truth and that all who disagree should be cast into outer darkness.
Or we could go on being unchristian -- and our nation, our churches and our selves will continue to pay the price.