Under the towering stained glass windows of Abraham Lincoln’s church on Jan. 14, a new slate of Illinois lawmakers bowed their heads as spiritual leaders prayed over them. The picture—prayer as the starting point for public service—was a clear, powerful way to start inauguration day for Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the state’s other elected officials.
What comes next, though, is a little murkier, especially for conservatives and Christians.
Pritzker campaigned on several issues where his views run counter to those of most conservative voters. He supported the bill that legalized taxpayer-funded abortions in Illinois, and as governor, plans to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state.
All six of Illinois’ newly inaugurated constitutional officers ran as Democrats, and the Democratic party holds supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly. People on the other side of the aisle may feel conservative values have been sidelined. But some Christians say now is the time to engage, despite the state’s lopsided legislative picture.
“We can become advisers to our lawmakers,” said David Smith, executive director of conservative non-profit Illinois Family Institute. Like Daniel in the Old Testament and Apostle Paul in the New, Christians can befriend and inform government leaders who hold views radically different from their own. The key, say Smith and other analysts, is playing the long game.
A higher calling
Gov. Pritzker’s inauguration day prayer service at Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church included readings from the Bible and the Quran. A Chicago rabbi prayed over Pritkzer, and faith leaders from other traditions prayed over his fellow elected officials. Conservative evangelicals weren’t noticeably represented at the service, which emphasized justice and mercy as qualities required from effective leaders.
Pritzker has highlighted those qualities when discussing his own Jewish upbringing. He and his wife, M.K., who converted to Judaism before their marriage, are raising their two children in the tradition of Pritzker’s parents—one in which values such as social and economic justice meld seamlessly with what one would hear in the synagogue, Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times during his campaign last summer.
“The job of governor, which is standing up for people, particularly our most vulnerable…that feels very natural to me,” Pritzker said on the paper’s “Face to Faith” podcast. “A governor who is not thinking about those who most need help and those who are striving to achieve, is a governor who’s failing.”
Advocacy for the disenfranchised could serve as a point of connection between the new governor and Christians. But there are other barriers, primarily as conservatives disagree with many of Pritzker’s positions. And conservatives and Christians have faced a rocky few years. Former governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, was locked in a long budgetary struggle with Democratic leadership, and also turned off many conservatives with his eventual support for House Bill 40, which legalized taxpayer-funded abortions in Illinois.
Although he had promised to veto the controversial bill, Rauner signed it in 2017, a move that eventually resulted in fellow Republican Jeanne Ives running against Rauner in the party’s primary election. The governor won a narrow victory, but lost by 16 points to Pritzker in November.
Conservatives wary of the Democratic majorities might concede that the only logical choice is to disengage, at least for four years. But political victory can’t be a Christian’s ultimate goal, Southeastern Seminary’s Bruce Ashford told the Illinois Baptist.
“Our public political discourse and political action on behalf of pro-life, religious liberty, and other causes—we do this out of our witness for Christ. Not just to win,” said Ashford, a professor of theology and culture at the Wake Forest, N.C., seminary.
Ashford’s 2018 book, “Letters to an American Christian,” offers a look at some of society’s most difficult issues, and its theme of truthful, gracious political engagement can be a guiding principle for Christians who feel outnumbered or underrepresented.
“We do what we do out of witness and obedience,” Ashford said. Otherwise, he added, we’re “sacrificing Christianity on the altar of short-term activism.”
Rules of engagement
In Pastor Mark Minor’s southern Illinois community, the politics of Chicago feel “ubiquitous and overwhelming.” His region is more conservative, but there’s also a resignation that nothing will change as long as deeply entrenched leaders and loyalties remain in power.
The pastor of Whittington Church challenged a more experienced politician when he ran for state representative in 2012. During his campaign, some people asked, “What’s a pastor doing getting involved in politics?” Minor said. But the current state of affairs is such that Christians have to engage.
“It’s not about Pritzker or Rauner or whoever the next governor is, it’s about positions. That’s the key,” Minor said. Many people in his church have chosen to engage at the local level, on school boards or as county officials.
Engagement can be as simple as a visit to your local representative, Smith said. He encourages Christian voters to visit their state representatives and senators, either in their district offices or in Springfield. And go in groups. A small group from one district is more likely to get a hearing, Smith advised, since lawmakers have limited time to meet with constituents.
Let the representative know you’re praying for them and ask how you can help them, Smith said. Share your concerns, but graciously. “You want to be able to present a winsome case with the goal of fostering a relationship,” Smith said. Relationship leads to the gospel. It’s the long game, and the ultimate goal.
That goal is why our discourse has to be governed by both truth and grace, said Ashford. Starting with social media, a Christian’s political engagement ought to be infused with the truth of Scripture, and the grace of Jesus Christ. It’s hard to do when we feel mocked or misrepresented by the other side, Ashford acknowledged, “but the problem is that we often respond in kind.”
“We as Christians sometimes think that we can lay our Christianity aside when it comes to the political arena. This is bad biblical reasoning.” Rather, he said, Christians are positioned to “speak a good word in a bad moment.”
Gov. Pritzker’s inauguration ceremony ended with a performance by Miguel Cervantes, a Chicago musician currently starring in “Hamilton.” From the end of the stage, he issued a warning, and a charge, that characters in the musical give each other: “History has its eyes on you.”
It was a moment meant for Pritzker and the other leaders sworn into service that day. But it could double as a word for Christians facing an uphill battle to play the politics game with truth and grace.