ATLANTA — There was no heated rhetoric, and only a few talking points, when two savvy 30-something Christians – a Democrat and a Republican – came to Mercer University to speak about their faith and their work inside the Beltway. The speakers, Katie Paris and Joshua Trent, spent the day on campus giving two presentations and speaking to classes as part of Mercer’s Lyceum initiative.
“We are hosting conversations that we hope will model civility and intelligence, the kind of civility and intelligence our country so desperately needs in these bitterly polarized times,” said Dr. David Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of Mercer’s Center for Theology and Public Life, which co-sponsored the event.
Paris is senior vice president for Media Matters for America, which according to the group “comprehensively monitors, analyzes and corrects conservative misinformation in the media.” Trent works as a health care policy adviser to U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. The two offered testimonies during the chapel hour on the University’s Atlanta campus about how their faith informed and motivated them, before shifting to a luncheon where they talked about their roles in the debate and passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Trent, a former student of Dr. Gushee’s before working in the federal government as a George W. Bush appointee, shared how his faith both informed his politics and motivated him to continue his work in government. As a policy adviser to Coburn, who is also a medical doctor, Trent helps him formulate policies and analyzes those policies. His views on government, he said, are informed by his faith — specifically, man is made in God’s image, but cursed by sin, and can only be saved by a relationship with Jesus.
“We understand that all human life is cursed by sin, that we live on this side of the fall and that means that everything we do, we do imperfectly,” Trent said. “There are frailties, there are falterings and there are imperfections and that is part of what it means to be human. But we also know that every human being is made in God’s image, and should be treated with kindness, with dignity, and respect, because they are the stewards of Creation and they are made in the image of God, and until Jesus returns someday, we live as Christians between what theologians call the now and the not yet.”
Trent also outlined what his experience had taught him about what Christians should expect from government, under four basic principles. Those principles are: government is imperfect and subject to human sin; that God created the idea of government, designing it to be a reflection of his authority; that human government is not the primary means of advancing the kingdom of God; and government’s primary purpose is to advance justice.
“So I would say good government is one that advances justice and protects people made in God’s image, that blesses and respects their rights as being ultimately responsible to, and accountable to, their creator,” he said. “So Christians can work in a government and work for a government and advance causes that roughly mirror and imitate God’s character, whether that’s justice, or mercy, accountability or good authority. And because of the view of man being made in God’s image, I would also say the most just governments, the best governments, are those that place worth on individuals, because Christianity teaches that while individuals find their role in community, through family or through local community or through government, they are the ones primarily responsible to God.”
Paris began working for Democratic campaigns just out of college before co-founding Faith and Public Life to lift up moderate evangelical voices in the media. However, she recently took her job with Media Matters following a discussion with a mentor who suggested she examine what frustrated her. Her work with the politics and the media intersected at Media Matters, and she chose to pursue that, she said, in part because of her quest for justice.
“I am where I am today because I feel compelled to address the things that frustrate me, and that has everything to do with my faith,” she said. “The way I see it, I can’t worship God and call myself a Christian and ignore Jesus’ example in my work and my life. Jesus said ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, with all your might,’ but he also said love your neighbor as yourself. If Jesus’ messages are still true today, and I believe they are, then our obligation is great. Good works cannot carry out this message alone, nor can attending worship on Sunday and saying ‘we believe with all of our hearts,’ but failing to be disrupted by our faith in all aspects of our lives.”
She suggested that those of faith could and should be involved in the political process, but not at the expense of their values.
“Faith is not a political strategy. That’s where the right went wrong,” she said. “We must always put faith before politics. We must seek a more genuine engagement of the Gospel, living the Word, not just speaking the Word, and come to the table inspired to resist, to tackle our toughest challenges. People of faith are in a unique position to be a uniting force, while also being a force that challenges and agitates for progress. Faith is an anchor, outside the definition set by our political system. It’s historically been and still is, I believe, powerful enough to force our leaders and our politicians to listen.”
For more on the Mercer Lyceum, go to lyceum.mercer.edu.