“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Luke 18:1
Being a politically conservative Christian is exasperating.
It’s bad enough being a conservative, a term beleaguered by uncritical overuse. Its cast of characters grows more and more disparate—conspiracy-mongers like Alex Jones, shallow provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, racist-nationalists like David Duke, populist-types like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, traditionalist-types like Ben Shapiro, ciphers like Jordan Peterson, mainstreamers like Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt, and RINOs like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. All can be labeled ‘conservative’ by media, political, and academic outlets, and judging by what often gets said about those under the label, one wonders if it’s merely a catchall for untouchables. “Oh, they’re a conservative.” Even the syllables are conducive to sneering.
Being a Christian hardly fares better. It seems that with each passing election cycle, exactly what it means to be ‘faithful’ in the political realm grows murkier and murkier. Do we love our neighbor better by providing haven for refugees or by ensuring security and safety for our children and fellow citizens? Does our work in the so-called ‘culture wars’ make us a voice crying in the wilderness against cultural rot, or does it reduce us to just another shark in the water looking for its scrap of legislative chum? In short, whether we consider ourselves conservative or not, are we the light of the world holding up Christ, or just another ‘voting bloc’ with ‘positions’ and ‘platforms’ that politicians can pander to?
It doesn’t help that Scripture is near silent on practical politics. Aside from general commands to be a good citizen (“live peaceably” and all that) and a clear though broad assertion that governments are ordained by God to punish bad and reward good, there’s no itemized take on the subject. Obviously, you can derive political principles from theological propositions (e.g., the imago dei certainly has something to say about abortion and immigration), but there is no line-by-line “Thus saith the Lord, here is the only way to establish a holy republic,” or “Thus saith the Lord, here are the only proper political action points for your party platform.” The Bible offers much to inform our political thought, but it itself is not a political manifesto, at least not for Christians. Jesus himself was regularly inscrutable on political matters. Just consider his position (if you can call it that) on taxes (Matthew 17:24-27 and 22:15-22). Not exactly a socialist or an anarcho-capitalist.
Obviously, ‘being Christian’ means being ‘Christ-like,’which at the very least means being like Jesus in word and deed. But what does that look like practically in the political realm?It’s a daunting question, and many a Thanksgiving has been ruined in pursuit of an answer.
Now, one of the deeds of Jesus that most anyone of any political persuasion can agree on was prayer. He taught on it, modeled it, and often excused himself (like an introvert at a party) to go do it in solitude. Consequently, it is considered a very ‘Christian’ thing to do, yet upon touching the political realm, it too becomes exasperating. National Days of Prayer are kept, but to what end? Babies are still killed in the womb, and crony capitalism remains unchecked. The White House holds prayer breakfast after prayer breakfast, but our politicians (in general) remain louts. “Thoughts and prayers” litter social networks at every tragedy, handed out like candy to cancer patients. The whole thing—no matter how sincerely put—feels like empty posturing and virtue signaling (two common vices of politics). It’s no wonder such things get mercilessly mocked these days. Prayer, as a national pastime, feels very much like the lauded emperor who wore no clothes.
Then again, perhaps what we—as conservative Christians specifically and as Americans generally—call ‘prayer’ really isn’t prayer at all.
In one of Jesus’s classic introvert moments, he withdraws himself into the wilderness to pray (Luke 5:16). The Greek word for prayer at that moment is an interesting one: “προσευχομαι.” Like a lot of Greek verbs, it’s a combination of a preposition and a verb: “προσ” means “towards” or “with” and carries the idea of interacting with someone or something; while the verb structure of “ευχομαι” means to “pray for oneself,” i.e., to make known your wishes, wants, and desires for yourself.
What makes the word interesting is that the idea of interaction implied in “προσ” has an economic connotation, i.e., to exchange with someone, like trading goods in a market. Understood literally, when Jesus went to the wilderness to pray, he was exchanging his wishes and wants with God’s wishes and wants. This notion of prayer was modeled simply and profoundly in Gethsemane: “If it’s possible, let this cup pass from me” (Jesus’s wish, want, and desire), followed by “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (the exchange of his wish, want, and desire for God’s).
For Jesus, prayer does involve making your requests known unto God, but that’s not its point. The point is transformative on your end, to sanctify you, body and soul, by teaching you to trade your will for God’s will, whatever that will may entail, which (as we saw in the life of Jesus) may entail a crucifixion in the public eye.
Perhaps this is why prayer is so exasperating in the political realm. Politics demands results, but prayer’s true ‘results’ are not policy changes but sanctification. In If You Will Ask, Oswald Chambers—that 20th-century theologian and personalist philosopher—put it in his usual plain yet charged manner: “It’s not so true that ‘prayer changes things’ as that prayer changes us, and then we change things.” Why is that the order of things? Because: “Jesus Christ is not a social reformer. He came to alter us first, and if there is any social reform to be done on earth, we must do it.”
Prayer is not a shortcut or short-circuit to getting things done. Rather, it is the opening of the furnace door so that the dross in us can be purged out. In that day-by-day, step-by-step sanctification and transformation of the self, we become the kind of people that God desires in all spheres of life, including the political realm.
Furthermore, part of that sanctification and transformation is learning what to actually pray for, and as Gethsemane demonstrated, it might not be exactly what we would will. But then again, perhaps that’s the problem: our wills are out of whack. As Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy, Jesus looks so strange to us because he is sanity and we’re all different shades and degrees of insanity. He looks like an odd shape to us because he is the right shape and we are all the wrong shape. Out of shape, as it were, and akin to sanctification is the word reformation, literally to re-form something, taking what was bent or twisted out of shape and setting it right again, sometimes with many hot hammer blows on an immovable anvil of circumstances.
As you partake in the guided prayer for Tennessee, remember what prayer is for: to transform you into a strong family resemblance to Jesus (as Oswald also put it). Make your requests known unto God—for this policy, that platform, or that election—and then follow it up with the “Nevertheless,” the exchange of will for will, want for want, desire for desire. Then let the chips fall where they may and do not despair or lose heart, for God does not desire a certain kind of politic as much as a certain kind of people. “Every Christian is to become a little Christ,” says C.S. Lewis. “The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”
About the Author
Jonathan received both his MA and MFA from the University of Memphis, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He teaches at the Center for Western Studies, is a native Memphian, and an avid lover of both great literature and animated movies. He has written for The CiRCE Institute and has been published in The Chesterton Review. He is fond of pie.