Can the Christian faith unite North Carolina and the country across party lines?
BY ADEJUWON OJEBUOBOH
Jesus Christ. The least unpopular name in American politics. With the election of Joe Biden (a self-professed devout Catholic), the Supreme Court appointment of Amy Coney Barrett (another devout Catholic), and the Georgia runoffs (Rev. Raphael Warnock and Kelly Loeffler are both Protestants), Jesus’s name has been thrust back into mainstream political discussion.
How do we serve the public and please God? How do we defend the constitution and the Bible? How do we reconcile faith and governance?
These questions have re-emerged in a time of immense unrest, discontentment, and division. But perhaps they arise at exactly the right moment. At a time when compromise and unity are scarce, the name of Jesus Christ can be the common ground that brings the country together. The Christian faith can serve as the old but new frontier for unity and reconciliation in electoral politics and American governance.
The juxtaposition of the Christian faith and politics is in no way a new phenomenon in America. (Throughout this piece, I will use the term, “Christian faith” as an umbrella that captures all denominations and sects of the teachings of Jesus Christ, including Catholicism and Protestantism.)
“Clearly, religion has thrived in America compared to other liberal democracies,” said Randall Styers, a religion professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the exception of Roman Catholics John F. Kennedy and now Joe Biden, “most of all the other presidents have been vaguely Protestant, some of whom quite Protestant.”
From Democrat Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday School to Republican George W. Bush regularly attending church, the Christian faith has been a source of support for political leaders of all parties. Still, there is a pervasive notion that the Republican Party possesses monopoly control over the Christian faith. With news sources reporting that, “80 percent of white evangelical Christians supported Trump,” it’s easy to buy into the idea that followers of Jesus flock to Republicans and reject Democrats. Nevertheless, 63 percent of Democrats or people who lean Democrat identify themselves as Christian, according to Pew Research Center.
“In terms of political power, Protestant Christians have held the majority of that for most of American history,” Styers said. Recently, however, new misconceptions have emerged regarding how Christians should apply faith to politics.
The prophet Daniel says in the Bible, “During the reigns of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed or conquered. It will crush all these kingdoms into nothingness, and it will stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). This same message of the Kingdom of God as the Lord’s everlasting reign reverberates throughout the Bible.
Brent Strawn, a professor of the Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, tells me there are a variety of opinions about how earthly governments can reconcile their authority with deference to the Kingdom of God. “Sometimes the state is irredeemably negative,” he said. Citing Romans 13, however, Strawn also highlighted the Bible’s call that “all government is given by God and should be respected.” Despite the differing perspectives that Christians have about government, Strawn identified one common theme that most Christians can concur on: “There is always a religion in the room.” It could be traditional and monotheistic like Islam or Judaism, but it could also be loose, like the “secular humanism” that places faith in the goodness of humanity.
Since some form of religion is always present, the burden falls on Christian political leaders to actively choose their own. Strawn characterized this as requiring “self-reminders”: persistent acknowledgments that one is not in complete control and that one’s political power is a gift that pales in comparison to God’s complete sovereignty.
Like everything else in life, though, it’s not that straightforward. A simple daily recognition of heavenly authority cannot be enough. Actions must flow out of that recognition. As the Apostle James exhorts, “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:14-26). This tends to be where the splintering among Christians occurs. How do Christian political leaders produce good deeds in their official capacity in deference to heavenly authority?
Only one way to find out: Ask them.
U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, a Republican, represents Eastern North Carolina. With the second biggest Marine base in the country and the extensive half-farmland, half-beach geography of his district, his constituents are remarkably conservative. The last time a Democrat won this district, nobody knew Bill Clinton was fooling around with Monica Lewinsky. Murphy perfectly fits the image of a southern Christian conservative. For some, “Christian Conservative” is an epithet. For Murphy, it’s a badge of honor.
“You got the left screaming that your faith shouldn’t have anything to do with it, and you got the right saying that’s our foundation,” he told me, concurring with the common accusation that Democrats demonize faith.
Another North Carolina politician, state Sen. Mike Woodard represents the 22nd state legislative district of North Carolina. His constituents are remarkably progressive, owing in part to the 40 percent Black population of Durham, the presence of Duke University, and the semi-urban makeup of his district—a district represented by Democrats since its creation in 2013. Woodard perfectly fits the mold of a southern Democrat. He’s Christian—and not a nominal one. His wife is an Episcopal deacon, and he says Christianity is central for him. “My faith life is always a part of me. My faith and public service share space internally to me,” he said.
These two Christian political leaders hold extremely different approaches to applying the teachings of Jesus to politics, at least at face value. For example, Murphy received a 92 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, while Woodard got 0 percent. Woodard was endorsed by Planned Parenthood, while Murphy was rated 100 percent by the National Right to Life Committee. These stark policy differences seem to imply a deep division between these two Christian politicians. But these men agree on more than what meets the eye.
When asked how faith informs his public service, Murphy said, “We’re called to a life of service to one another.” Woodard said, “We’re taught to help others.” Both of these Christians are motivated by the Biblical call to “through love, serve one another.” This principle is foundational to the Christian faith. Followers of Jesus are called to serve others and to “dress [themselves] in humility as[they] relate to one another,” as the Apostle Peter advised (I Pet. 5:5). Despite their policy differences, both of these men concur that having a relationship with God is a precondition for fulfilling the biblical call to serve others.
The Bible rebukes our innate desire to live for ourselves. In fact, in Romans 14, Paul says, “We do not live for ourselves only, and we do not die for ourselves only. If we live, it is for the Lord that we live, and if we die, it is for the Lord that we die” (Rom. 14:7-8). Recognizing this, both of these Christian leaders express their faith through service. “My faith takes action and manifests itself in public service,” Woodard said. Or, as Murphy put it, “I’ve tried to turn that faith into action.”
Both of these men are serving because Jesus calls them to do so. They see no need to reconcile faith and governance because they believe there is no governance without faith. They would not have entered politics without their religious convictions to serve. “Politics was never a plan. I was asked,” Murphy informed me. And Woodard told me, “Through my work, the work I do, the things I do, what I say, and in the policies I advocate for, I hope my faith comes through. I believe God created a world for us and made us the stewards of his creation. That’s why I’m passionate.”
This harmony between Murphy and Woodard shows how the core tenets of the Christian faith can unite Americans and transcend the political barriers that typically divide the nation.
Still, our discussion would be incomplete without considering how the Christian faith is not shared by all Americans and how the call for “separation of church and state” complicates things.
The term “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution. This phrase was first used by Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, and then famously used by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
“People just simply aren’t aware of what [the Constitution] says,” said Martin Brinkley, a dean at the University of North Carolina Law School. Although “the Supreme Court has articulated this notion of separation of church and state,” the Constitution simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, “we’re not going to have a state-sponsored church,” Brinkley told me.
Brinkley argues that “separation of church and state” isn’t an accurate interpretation of this clause of the First Amendment. “The use of the word church is problematic,” he said. “The word church typically applies to Christians. It puts Christians at the center [when] legally it’s supposed to incorporate all religions.”
In Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, where he wrote about “separation of church and state,” he also wrote, “Religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God.” Though those two concepts are often mistaken for each other, they are actually very different. “Separation of church and state” simply prevents the state from sponsoring a church, in keeping with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In contrast, the idea that religion as a matter solely between man and his God is an unconstitutional opinion that chips at the core of the Christian faith—service to others. If religion was solely between individuals and God, then Christians would not pursue politics because there would be no reason to serve others. Their faith would be concentrated on themselves and God. This contradicts the many passages in the Bible that command Christians to orient their lives around loving and serving others. Indeed, both Rep. Murphy and Sen. Woodward recognize that their faith calls them to “humble [themselves] under the mighty power of God” (I Pet. 5:6). One of the key ways this is done is through service to others.
Thus, while the First Amendment prohibits the government from sponsoring a religion, nothing in the Constitution provides a basis for completely severing faith from politics.
Once we recognize this constitutional truth, we’re still left with the question of how faith can unite those who aren’t Christian. I asked a minister who also serves in the North Carolina General Assembly how this can be done.
“My faith in God is most important in the decisions I make. I want them to glorify God and help people,” said Phil Shepard, a state representative and senior pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He told me how it’s difficult to explain to voters who aren’t followers of Jesus why he votes a certain way. He has looked to the model of Jesus on how to navigate this. Shepard described an incident where a non-constituent berated him with abusive language about an issue in the legislature. Although the person wasn’t in Shepard’s district, Shepard set aside his pride and right to be offended by helping the person resolve their issue.
This love and humility is how the Christian faith welcomes everyone, even those who don’t share it. Even when non-Christians respond in anger, Christians are called to demonstrate the same steadfast love that Jesus showed. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul calls on all believers to “be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Such kindness demonstrates “civic grace.”
Grace is given to those who don’t deserve it. Paul further states in Ephesians: “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Eph. 2:8-9). Grace is impossible to earn. It is only given. In the words of biblical scholar Paul Zahl, “grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it.”
Civic grace is the practical application of the biblical, unconditional gift of love to daily political life. Shepard walked in civic grace when he responded with kindness to that man who called him in anger. This grace emulates the same compassion, conviction, and service that Jesus exemplified.
We live in a time when the actions and words of many politicians who claim to follow Jesus seem to contradict civic grace and the life of Jesus. A genuine submission to Jesus in private is the first step in transforming political discourse in public, as the lives of Murphy and Woodard illustrate. Civic grace is a perfect example of how and why the Christian faith can be the uniting force in North Carolina and the nation at large.
Editor’s Note: Ojebuoboh interned for Murphy in the summer of 2020.
 All Scripture references are in the New Living Translation.
 During his 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker coined the term “civic grace.” His call for “bringing people together” was framed around a “common purpose” among all Americans that fosters unity and compassion—central tenets of the Christian faith.