Despite the assumption that this nation’s campuses are spiritual deserts, 34.5% of the incoming class of 2023 identified as Christian. On a campus known for its political activism, a small segment of these Christian-identifying students have chosen to make civic engagement a part of their time at college.
Politics, from the Greek word polis (city), is, in its simplest terms, anything that maintains and improves the lives of citizens. Politics includes not only campaigning and legislating, but also advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable, volunteering for those in need, caring for the environment, supporting peace-making efforts, and championing equality. This sounds awfully similar to the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow.” Politics isn’t just a pastime, it’s a Christian commandment.
I spoke with three Christian Harvard students involved in campus political activities to find out what motivates them, how they perceive other Christians who have fundamentally different ideological views, and how, in this broken world, they have hope.
Matt Jacobsen ’22 is a sophomore at the College and a member of Harvard Right to Life, an organization that campaigns for the illegalization of abortion and euthanasia. Hailing from a pig farm in Stephen King’s district in Iowa, his area was “pretty ideologically the same, so there wasn’t really any need to think about politics.”
“Coming to Harvard, it’s the opposite,” Jacobsen said. “It’s an area completely different ideologically to the place you are from, which is refreshing, and makes you think a lot about some of the issues you may not have thought about beforehand.” The process of considering his own beliefs ultimately led Jacobsen to join Right to Life.
“When it comes to my politics, I think it’s important to take my religious convictions with me to the polling booth, but in advocacy, I don’t think that religion should play the central role,” he continued. “[Though] there is a Bible verse (Jeremiah 1:5), I knew you before you were formed in the womb, this doesn’t help someone think about abortion rights if they are not a Christian.” Instead, “faith and advocacy should be completely separate.”
Ever since the consolidation of the GOP party in the 50s, spearheaded by Evangelical activists such as Phyllis Schlafly, Christianity has heavily imposed itself on the right-wing political space. However, in Harvard Right to Life, “we try to actively avoid [the topic of faith]. I don’t believe that we should use religion as an argument for the pro-life movement. It’s not going to win anybody over, and if anything, it’s going to steer people away. You can connect to other Christians about [your beliefs], but that’s a conversation to be had in private.” In fact, though many Right to Life members inhabit religious spaces on campus, a previous president of the group identified as areligious.
Nevertheless, it is important to Jacobsen for each individual to connect whatever faith they have—or don’t have—with politics, because “your convictions are part of what makes you, you.” Standing contrary to millennial ‘snowflake’ culture, which follows the maxim – that which will cause harm should be prevented from being said, Jacobsen holds the traditional democratic ideal that “you should always be looking to apply or share those convictions on campus. Never feel that sharing your convictions is somehow oppressing somebody else. Whatever you think, everybody should be able to hear what you have to say and then come to their own conclusions based off of that.” The problem of free speech cuts through the heart of universities; The intersection of faith and politics is one of its fiercest battle grounds.
Mary Broker ’20 is a Senior at the College who volunteers at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter and actively participates in the Catholic Students Association. When asked if she sees her volunteering as a civic or religious duty, “it’s not an either-or sort of thing. I think that if I hadn’t had my religious upbringing, I would still be doing this work, very simply because it is just. At the same time, the social justice tradition within Catholicism is very real. When the final judgement is talked about in the Book of Matthew Chapter 25, it is clear that knowing Christ is about loving the poor.”
When asked how she sees her work as connecting to the wider political scene, she says “writing the checks and casting votes for politically responsible candidates is important. But I also think that to some degree, there’s a necessity for people to get their boots on the ground and get their hands dirty.” For Broker, she has personally done this through leading overnight shifts and holding an administrative role at the shelter and wants to see spending time with the needy prioritized above campaigning for legislative change. While many Harvard students view “politics” as electable groups, Broker sees political duty as an outpouring of her faith contributing to social good.
Broker also hopes that higher-level policymaking can make a difference to the homelessness crisis. “There seems to be a lot more emphasis on evidence about what works, [which we are seeing in] Housing First policies.” When it comes to dealing with Christians who disagree with her, “respecting people’s autonomy is a very necessary part of being human. That’s not a religious issue, it’s a human thing. If you don’t respect someone, you’re never going to change their mind on whether or not we need to be enacting different policies.”
She summarizes this principle in its practical application of “loving people first and dialogue second.” Within the Catholic Students Association “you have a diverse group of people. Some are incredibly conservative, some people are very justice oriented. There is a sect which I would disagree with on a lot of things, but I’ve been able to find a community of people who share my progressive views, and I haven’t had a problem with feeling isolated because of what I believe.”
Hannah Johnson, who wished to remain anonymous for this interview, is a student at the College who teaches civics to kids, helps at a homeless shelter and is active in multiple Christian fellowships. She grew up in a Presbyterian community committed to liberal politics and, consequently, did a lot of phone-banking for the Democratic Party. Having joined fellowship groups of different denominations in college she said, “I think that Christians shouldn’t necessarily have an allegiance to either political party. Your primary allegiance should be to your faith. Neither of the two status quo American political parties share all the Christian values.”
When it comes to her personal voting decisions, she said that “as a Christian, I feel good about the Democratic Party and liberal ideology of wanting to give to the poor and support people with social services. However, on the other side I am pro-life, so I definitely find it difficult to mediate between those perspectives. There’s something called weighing, where you have an impact calculus of all these different subjective goods and you have to weigh which politician holds more of them, or who’s going to do less harm to Christian values.” Due to the huge variety of what actually is a “Christian value,” it is unlikely that an individual will find a politician who has come to all the same conclusions as them, which explains why Christians should be comfortable and encouraging of a level of political disagreement within their communities.
Johnson’s biggest turn-off in a politician is hate. “A hateful politician disparages the name of what a Christian is. I don’t care if you’re going to vote pro-life if you’re going to make tons of people hate Christians. If you can’t express your beliefs without hate, I’m probably not going to support you, even if I were to agree with your beliefs.”
On a campus where 64.6% of the Class of 2023 identified as very to somewhat liberal compared to 12.4% identifying as very to somewhat conservative, there are several support systems for conservative Christians to find a home, such as the John Adams Society, a conservative debate organisation with no religious affiliation but plenty of religious members. However, when it comes to the left-side of the aisle, Christian liberal students seem to be at a loss about how they can integrate their faith with their politics. The only two more liberal-leaning Christians deeply involved in politics I could find were Broker and Johnson. In my process of looking for interviewees, I contacted liberal political groups such as Undergraduates for Environmental Justice, Quoffice of LGBTQ advocacy, Harvard for Bernie, Harvard Dems and the Black Students Association, as well as Christian fellowships of multiple denominations. No one was willing to speak to me on-the-record. But if the political sway of the class is so heavily biased towards the left, where are all the liberal Christians hiding?
“There are so many [secret] Christians at Harvard,” Johnson said. “For all of last year, a group of girls in [my organization] were going to [the same Church] and none of us knew that any of the others were going. Everyone scurries to church by themselves, doesn’t talk to anyone and comes back. Unless you know someone else is Christian, you’re not going to tell them because you’re afraid of being judged. That fear is probably intensified in liberal circles.”
“I’m sure that there are people in Harvard Dems or other liberal groups who are Christian, but don’t feel comfortable identifying that way because of how faith is perceived on campus. It hurts Democrats and it hurts liberals to be seen as areligious or anti-Christian. I wish more people were able to talk about their faith like the way Buttigeig has.” If we are to see a nation changed, we need Christians citizens of all kinds (not just the religious right) taking their civic duty seriously.
Some Christians are wary of idolising politics above their faith, which is a talking point in sermons across the nation, including in Adam Mabry’s of Alethia Church, Boston. There has been a shift of Christians choosing to remove themselves from the public sphere because “at the end of the day, politicians will always fail you,” Johnson said. “The only thing that can be in that top position is Christ, the only time we will reach the society we want is in heaven.”
However, Johnson is clear that “it would be a mistake to take that as an indication that we shouldn’t try to make our world closer to what we read in Revelation where all nations, all people and all colours are together.” She said “politics can do that on individual issues, and there are individual issues that I do have a lot of hope will get better, but not as things are going right now. We’re becoming less kind, less Christian, less understanding, less willing to hear the other person out. I’m getting less and less hopeful in politics, which forces me to be more and more hopeful in God and the future I have with him. I guess in a way that’s a good thing. The more of a s***-show politics is, the more you understand that the world is fallen. Why are we surprised?”
Angela Eichhorst ’22 is a joint Classics and Comparative Religion Concentrator in Dunster House