Within hours of Pennsylvania’s primary elections last April, Cairn Magazine sat down with two alumni shaping the public sphere in the Philadelphia region: Alan Crippen ’83, president of the John Jay Institute, and PA State Rep. Leslie Acosta ’97. Despite differences in political party (Crippen is a Republican; Acosta is a Democrat) and geographic location (JJI is on Philadelphia’s Main Line; Acosta’s office is in North Philadelphia), from a shared biblical worldview emerged clear themes on the source of society’s problems, what is needed to fix them, and the civic responsibilities of believers.
Truth: Problems in society result when God is absent from the public square.
Crippen: “Our current situation shouldn’t be a surprise, given the disintegration of Christian culture. It’s a common saying: ‘Politics is downstream from culture.’ Our political issue is really a cultural issue, and our cultural issue is at heart a religious issue. If a culture is disordered in its worship, then it will be disordered in its politics. ‘Culture’ and ‘cult’ both stem from the same root, etymologically and philosophically: what we worship.
“What’s happening now in American politics is what the founding fathers feared would happen: The weakness of a republic is its dependence on virtue. The founding fathers were students of history, and as such, they knew that Rome fell when public virtue became public vice. With the loss of virtue, a republic is wholly unsustainable.”
Acosta: “People start moving the needle on poverty when we are true to God, true to people, and true to our commitments. The glue that holds everything together is Jesus Christ, and when people stop understanding that, you have these challenges in your communities. When God is excluded from men’s lives and our social contexts, we have institutional structures that are not fair. We have disinvestment in certain zip codes of our educational system; we have disparity in health care; we don’t have justice when it comes to juvenile ‘lifers’ in prison; we have a host of social issues related to racism.
“When we commit these kinds of injustices, that shows that God is not involved in those decisions. People say that you can’t mix God and politics — but God is a God of justice, and every social issue that we talk about is relevant to that. If we’re going to move in a direction of growth and better quality of life, we need to acquire a new manner of thinking — and God cannot be absent from that.”
Truth: We need to bring together believers who think differently.
Acosta: [In the political process], we need diversity. We need all of our diverse, multicultural backgrounds. We need Latinos and African Americans, who tend to be more progressive in their thinking, to be part of the conversation. We need to have conservatives and progressives together in the same institutions. I’m not saying that we need to bend on our strong convictions about the Bible, about God. But this is what democracy is about — representing all people with strong convictions, people who don’t think alike. It’s about having intelligent and respectful conversations about the things that we disagree about.”
Crippen: “When we talk about ‘politics,’ we’re not talking about the kind of ‘dirty’ process associated with the term today. We’re talking about polity, about life in the polis — the question of ‘How are we as humans to live together?’ It’s not just government; it’s not just civic society. It’s life in community. It’s how we treat each other over the mess in the sink. We tell our fellows [at JJI], ‘If you can’t figure out how to live together with twelve other believers, you have no business shaping society in the public square.’
“Christians in the public square need to practice, to habituate, what they believe — including how they view someone with whom they have a principled disagreement. Do we demonize him or her, or do we engage with respect and professionalism?”
Truth: Christians have a responsibility to engage.
Crippen: “Disengagement is not an appropriate response. The rights and duties of citizens can’t be separated. The level of an individual’s engagement is vocational, a matter of one’s personal calling from God. But the duty of all citizens minimally involves participation — informed voting — in the democratic process, no matter how vicious or vulgar the process has become. After all, is there any hope of change if Christians disengage?”
Acosta: “Churches have a civic and social responsibility to get engaged [in the public square]. There need to be relationships and coalition-building between churches and politicians. In order to really ‘get it together’ as a neighborhood, we need God to be at the center of that.
“The church, its people, have to come out of their church buildings and integrate themselves in the community. It’s a game-changer when people see that people in the church care, that they’re there to help, to provide leadership and guidance. People have stopped caring, and that set a lot of communities back. They give up hope, and that sets individuals and families back. We, the church, have got to get back into the business of showing people that God has not forgotten them and that there’s hope in the midst of despair.”
Crippen: “We need to re-engage with a new perspective. We have never been a post-Christian culture before. We cannot approach issues as William Wilberforce did. Rather, we need to look back to the early Christians living in a pre-Christian, anti-Christian culture. And, as believers with a resurrection worldview, we need to have hope — that our post-Christian culture may also be a pre-Christian culture again.”
Alan Crippen ’83 is the president and founder of the John Jay Institute in Bala Cynwyd, PA. JJI offers leadership development programs for rising young public leaders, junior officers in the US Armed Forces, and established professionals.
Leslie Acosta ’97 is the PA State Representative for the 197th District, which includes part of the poorest zip code in Philadelphia. She was the first Latina sworn into the Pennsylvania State legislature.