Politics is often a dirty word. We are plagued by “problematic” views, vitriolic debates, the 24/7 news reel and relentless online argument, leading to awkward conversations with those closest to us and increasing division between one another.
But the machinations of sensationalized media and the seats of power are only part of politics. Politics, from the Greek word “polis,” meaning city state, is equivalent to the more noble “civics,” from the Latin “civis,” meaning “citizen.” Politics in its true form is anything that has to do with maintaining and improving the life of citizens. In this larger sense, politics includes not only campaigning and legislating, but also advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable, volunteering for those in need, caring for our environment, supporting peace-making efforts, and championing equality. It involves speaking out, voting, getting our hands dirty, protesting and listening. Politics involves heeding the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who commands us to “learn to do right, seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; [and] plead the case of the widow.” So, while Jesus’ name has been used in vain for countless political causes over the centuries with devastating consequences, Christians motivated by their faith must nevertheless seek to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God,” engaging in the existing political sphere without idolizing politics itself.
34.5% of the incoming class of 2023 identified as Christian in a survey conducted by the Crimson, and on a campus that is so politically active, I wanted to talk to the segment of Christian students who decided to make civic engagement a part of their time at college. For the heroes of our community fighting the good fight, what motivates them, how do they deal with Christians who have fundamentally different ideological views, and how, in this bleak world, do they have hope?
The views expressed by the students in this article are not necessarily the official or accepted views of that political or religious organization. These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
Matt Jacobsen ’22 is a Sophomore at the College and a member of Harvard Right to Life.
Were you involved in politics before college?
“No. I’m from Iowa, Stephen King’s district. I’m not a Steve King fan, but that’s just giving you an idea of what kind of a district I’m from. It’s pretty ideologically the same. There’s not too much disagreement so there wasn’t really any need to think about politics. Coming here to Harvard, it’s kind of the opposite. You’re coming to 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. Abortion is obviously one of them, but there are a ton of other topics as well.”
To what extent does your personal faith inform your politics and civic engagement?
“I think it informs it quite a bit. Growing up you learn the Bible, you may have Sunday school, and you learn the stories. You may not know the values from those stories then, but they are something kids can connect with, and understand later on… 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. In terms of abortion, there’s a Bible verse “I knew you before you were formed in the womb,” but that doesn’t really help someone if they are not a Christian. That’s the reason I think that faith and advocacy should be completely separate, religious convictions are only on an individual level.”
Do you think it’s important for Christians to be involved in politics?
“Yes. I think there’s that sense of community and forming each other as Christians when you get involved in a cause. As to whether you should be forcing your religion, using your religion as an argument for politics, I don’t think that should be the case. If somebody else is an atheist or of another religion trying to inform me about their religion attempting to influence my politics, it’s not going to be very effective because I have my own personal convictions.”
In Harvard Right to Life, what’s it like being a Christian? Is Christianity regularly brought into the conversation? Do people talk about their faith openly?
“We try to actively avoid it. 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 it, but that’s a conversation to be had in private. In terms of our advocacy, I don’t think it’s a good idea to combine religion and politics at all. I come from a very conservative area and the overwhelming majority of people there are Christian or atheist, but formerly Christian. You don’t get people of other religions, so everyone is very comfortable talking about it. I think coming here to an area where there’s still quite a few Christians, I have found a good community, but there’s also people with different faiths or none, and it’s made me think a lot more about my own religious convictions, as well other people’s.”
How do you have hope when you see things in the nation and the world just going really badly?
“I think society likes to go to extremes but we’re eventually going to go back to more moderate politics. I think Trump probably made things very polarized which has pushed both sides of the aisle to extremes. Everybody needs to just calm down, which is what I think is probably going to happen when Trump is out of office. If you look back at history, there are specific periods where things went badly, and we focus a lot on those. We don’t always focus on the areas of calm, but they’re definitely there. That gives me hope.”
How do you deal with Christians who have fundamentally different political views to you? Do you think that this is related to their understanding of Christianity? Would you say that, poor politics is a result of poor theology?
“I don’t think so at all. You have the Old Testament, which lays out the convictions that you should have, but then the New Testament brings about this notion of forgiveness and repentance. I think that’s where Christians can have different interpretations in their politics. When you have forgiveness and repentance that gives you the idea that you can sin but still be okay. I think there are definitely cultural standards that can influence your notion of what is moral to do. You can look at views over the history of the nation. There were once people who owned slaves that claimed to be Christian, and now we look back at that and think, what the hell? When you look at things in the past with a different cultural lens you’re going to wonder, what were they thinking?”
What would you say to Christians on campus, not currently super involved in politics to encourage them to be more active?
“I think everybody should take their religion with them into politics. I think your convictions are part of what makes you, you. You should always be looking to apply those convictions on campus or share your convictions on campus. Never feel that sharing your convictions is somehow oppressing somebody else. You’re just sharing your beliefs and what your thoughts are. I believe that 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.”
Mary Broker ’20 is a Senior at the College who volunteers at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter (HSHS) and is a member of the Catholic Students Association (CSA).
Could you tell me about the social justice work you are involved in?
“I have been involved at HSHS for all of my time at Harvard. I was a volunteer my first year, sophomore year I led overnight shifts, junior year I was the volunteer director, which meant I was coordinating all of the volunteers for that space, doing trainings and making sure that we continue to have enough volunteers and this year I’m not working in an administrative capacity anymore but I’m coming back as a supervisor leading overnight shifts again.
How far do you see volunteering at the homeless shelter a civic duty or a 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 Matthew 25 it is very clear about the fact that knowing Christ is about loving the poor. I see a necessity for it if you’re looking at scripture. This is what Jesus says you have to do. But mostly it strikes me as something that is just.”
You talk about justice in terms of the hands on helping, like at a homeless shelter. How do you feel that is connected to wider politics such as voting?
“I think it has to be. Voting can be removed from actual encounters with people and I do think that 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. It’s not an either or. We have to get responsible people in office who are going to address these crises that are very real, but also do what we can to serve them ourselves. That will vary for different people, I understand that there are different roles and people are able to do that in different capacities. Some people in certain careers might need to be writing the checks but I do think that there is a sense in which people should be getting their hands dirty.”
How much hope do you have for high level politics actually being able to make a difference?
“There are a lot of things that give me hope, especially surrounding homelessness. There seems to be a lot more emphasis on evidence about what works and Housing First policies now. I think that people are starting to realize that evidence is important and are moving towards things that have been shown to be effective, which gives me hope.”
What’s your experience of being socially minded in a Christian organization at Harvard? Do you feel like other people care? Do you think they don’t care enough? How do they view you?
“Within a group like the CSA, you have an incredibly diverse group of people. Some people are incredibly conservative, some people are very justice oriented. There are people who are orthodox to varying extents and practicing to various extents. There is a sect which I would disagree with on a lot of things, but that’s definitely not the whole CSA. I’ve been able to find a community of people who share my progressive views and haven’t had a problem with feeling isolated because of what I believe.”
In the homeless shelter, how do the other students view you for being Christian? Do you talk about your faith there? Are there other Christians in that community with you?
“It’s not something that I hide, but it’s also not something that I necessarily focus on talking about. If it comes up, it comes up and I’m not afraid to discuss it, but I wouldn’t say it’s something that I talk about a ton at the shelter.”
How do you deal with Christians who have fundamentally different views? Do you think that it’s related to their poor understanding of theology? How do you deal with the fact that people disagree on something you find so important?
“Respecting people’s autonomy is a very necessary part of being human. Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, you’re going to have people who disagree with you. That’s not a religious issue, it’s a human thing. It’s a human skill to respect people, but dialogue needs to happen. I’m thankful to be able to have those conversations in a way that respects the views. The only way that people will change the way they think about things is with respect. 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. So then how do you deal with that? I think you need to love people first and dialogue second. It’s about providing evidence for what works and what’s efficient. For example, I would say to someone who disagrees with Housing First, I know you think that spending money in order to put people into permanent housing immediately when they become homeless seems like a crazy idea, but when you look at the long term effects, you spend less and it’s more effective. I don’t think that everything is about minimizing costs for the government, but if you can provide evidence that things are cost effective and bring that to the table, those are the kind of solutions that can persuade people.”
Hannah Johnson (name changed for privacy reasons) is a student at the College who volunteers teaching civics to kids, helps at a homeless shelter and is active in multiple Christian fellowships.
What kind of politics, advocacy, campaigning or voting have you been involved with or are you involved in now?
“I did a lot of phone-banking and grew up liberal Presbyterian. I’ve changed my perspective a lot since coming to Harvard and becoming more serious about my faith. Having reconsidered, 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. 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 through more giving. However, on the other side I am pro-life, so I definitely find it difficult to mediate between those perspectives. I also don’t necessarily think that an issue like abortion is going to be solved in a legislative way. I think it’s a wider cultural issue of not enough social services for women and families. If you have a world where women and families are supported, then they will not feel the need to terminate a pregnancy.
I’ve voted in one election cycle so far. I think I will vote again. I’m currently a registered Democrat, but am thinking about registering as an independent, partly for Christian reasons, partly for [other] reasons. In my daily life, I don’t do that much outward facing advocacy but I volunteer for a program that teaches civics. I’m trying to move towards a more hands-on model rather than a political model because neither of the big political parties necessarily do God’s work. We can probably do that better individually because you can be more confident in your own public service than you can in others’.
I definitely want to see more Christian politicians with politics that reflect good Christian values. Conservatives will often run on their Christianity like a brand, it’s weird. I have a lot of thoughts with the term Evangelical and Born Again because according to the Bible, anyone who is a Christian is born again. It’s hard because that term has come to connote something very different. I do see myself as born again but am I a Born Again Christian in that way, I don’t know.”
How do you square the fact that Christians can have very different political perspectives? Are you forced into a position of saying that one of them is misguided or that one of them is less Christian?
“I think the most diplomatic approach is to say that they’re both misguided. Christianity means that you love and accept everyone but that doesn’t mean that you condone everything people do. You don’t accept their sinful behaviour because we’re all sinners. I think the problem with some very liberal Christian politicians is that they don’t take that step of saying that the Bible has rules for how to live and that we need to follow those. In a way, they can’t because we have division of church and state, so they can’t take the step of mandating citizens to love Jesus. I understand how for those politicians the only thing that would be okay to put into politics would be general love, and not the biblical rules or teachings. Perhaps calling that running as a Christian is wrong, perhaps saying that anyone is running as a Christian is wrong?
In terms of the more contested biblical rules, it’s every Christian’s job to do the theological work and form their own opinion. There’s something called weighing, where you have an impact calculus of all these different subjective goods like unborn babies and sanctifying Jesus in marriage and so on. There are all these different balls you’re trying to hold and you have to weigh which politician holds more of them, or who’s going to do less harm to Christian values. I think a hateful politician disparages the name of what a Christian is. 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.
Pragmatically, I think the representation of Christians, in this day and age almost matters more than the law. Individual congresspeople don’t have enough power to change a law, but how are they using their voice? I don’t care if you’re going to vote pro-life if you’re going to make tons of people hate Christians. Our government wasn’t created to be religious, but as a religious person, you probably shouldn’t make voting decisions without consulting your faith. We can’t just put faith in a box and put it away.”
You mentioned considering not voting in the upcoming election. To what extent do you think it’s a duty for Christians to be involved in politics?
“You’re probably correct in implying that Christians have a duty to act in the face of injustice. I do think it’d be fair to say in whatever way it is, which for most people is voting, you have an obligation to stop harms that are happening in people’s daily lives. Christians have a civic duty to vote because that’s the way you can make the most influence in our society.”
What hope do you have for politics and advocacy actually being able to change a nation? Do you think politics works? How do you think it compares to Christianity’s ability to make our world better?
“Politicians will always fail you. 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. In terms of a comparison, there is no comparison. Revelation talks about all nations, all people, all colors all together. But it would be a mistake to take that as an indication that we shouldn’t try to make it better our world closer to what we read about in Revelation. I think politics can do that on individual issues and there are individual issues that I do have a lot of hope will get better. I do hope that the country moves towards being more accepting of helping the poor through social welfare programs. On issues like abortion and gay marriage, I don’t think those are going to be cleanly resolved on the state level, and perhaps they shouldn’t be. I think politics could maybe reach a midpoint of giving a nod to the other perspective and a nod to my view. 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?”
I’ve had a hard time finding Christians involved in liberal political groups like the Harvard Dems, LGBTQ issues or Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice to interview for this article. I approached Christian fellowship organizations asking for anyone involved in politics, and I asked political organizations for anyone involved in Christian organizations. In the Crimson survey of the Class of 2023, 64.6% of the Class identified as very to somewhat liberal compared to 12.4% identifying as very to somewhat conservative. Why do you think I had a more difficult time finding Christian liberals to interview than Christian conservatives?
“I don’t like to appropriate this term but there are so many closet Christians at Harvard. 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. I think that fear is probably intensified in liberal circles. I’m sure that there are people in Harvard Dems or other groups who are Christian but don’t feel comfortable identifying that way because of the way faith is perceived on campus. It hurts democrats and it hurts liberals to be seen as areligious or anti-Christian and I wish more of people were able to talk about their faith like the way Buttigeig has. There are definitely Christians who are on the liberal perspective in terms of race. But they’re in a tough spot again because a lot of them are pro-life and politicians who are pro-life are often anti-black. So what do you do?”
Angela Eichhorst ‘22 is a joint Classics and Comparative Religion concentrator in Dunster House.